Infrastructure investments and apprenticeship advancement go hand in hand
Burlington County Times Opinion Editorial.
By Donald Norcross
As we recognized National Infrastructure Week (May 14) around the country, we must take the opportunity to encourage both the work and the workers that will rebuild America.
We must start robustly investing in our aging bridges, roads, rails, ports, airports, electric grid, water pipes, broadband network and more. Not only is it critical for our national security, but it also will create high-skilled, high-wage jobs and help power our economy for generations to come. But in the next five years, there will be 68 percent more job openings in infrastructure-related fields than there are people training to fill them, according to the U.S. Department of Education. It’s clear we need to change that trend by preparing more people now.
When I was a kid, I was always the one taking apart my bicycle to see how it worked. I loved working with my hands, and I decided to pursue “the other four-year degree.” I was an electrical apprentice, and then worked for years installing and restoring power for New Jersey homes, businesses and industrial sites.
Many kids and teens today are just like me, but instead of helping these students develop trade skills, we instead push them toward a “one-size-fits-all” traditional four-year college. Our country needs plumbers and electricians, just like we need doctors and lawyers. But to have enough of each, we need to boost career training programs and change the mindset of our education system.
I recently filmed an episode of the long-running PBS home improvement series “This Old House,” which is bringing much-needed attention to apprenticeship training with its Generation Next initiative. I put my tool belt back on, and while working, I spoke to students about their career paths. I heard an all-too-common refrain: Parents, teachers, guidance counselors and college recruiters are only pushing college.
Last week, the “This Old House” team came to Washington and joined me for a conversation with policymakers on what we can do to build the well-trained workforce that will rebuild America.
For instance, families are encouraged to save for their children’s higher education using tax-free 529 accounts. That’s great, but 529s cover only college costs, not apprenticeship training. When a child is born, we don’t know if he or she will want to go to college, or build the college, and yet we’re incentivizing one over the other. My 529 OPTIONS Act would level that playing field and send the important signal that skills-based professionals are needed and valued.
Moving forward, we must show more legislators, educators and business leaders examples of apprenticeship programs that work. That’s why earlier this year I led a bipartisan group of colleagues on a tour of the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC) in Lanham, Maryland, which is jointly run by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26 and the National Electrical Contractors Association. Including the JATC, North America’s Building Trades Unions run over 1,900 apprenticeship training programs across the country, making it among the largest education providers in the country. This high-performing, self-sustaining model is one that other industries and companies can replicate to train tomorrow’s workforce.
For centuries, our ancestors passed down their knowledge and skills to their children and grandchildren. It’s fundamental to our survival, after all. But nowadays, it seems our society is focusing only on the knowledge part of the equation, not the skills part.
My electrical apprenticeship allowed me to learn and earn so I could support a young family while learning a trade. It set me on a path toward a fulfilling, family-sustaining career, and it ultimately led me to serve in Congress. Could our next generation of skilled workers lead our nation? I think so. But first, we need to refocus our efforts so that millions of young Americans are prepared to fill the high-skilled, high-paying jobs that will power our next infrastructure revolution.