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Opinion: Young Americans Need to Be Prepared to Lead Next Infrastructure Revolution

Infrastructure investments and apprenticeships go hand in hand

Millions of young Americans need to be prepared to fill the high-skilled, high-paying jobs that will power the nation’s next  infrastructure revolution, writes Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file photo)
Millions of young Americans need to be prepared to fill the high-skilled, high-paying jobs that will power the nation’s next  infrastructure revolution, writes Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file photo)

As we recognize Infrastructure Week around the country, we must take the opportunity to encourage both the work and the workers who 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, it will create high-skilled, high-wage jobs and help power our entire 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 just 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 in order to have enough of each, we need to boost career training programs and change the mindset of our education system.

I recently filmed an upcoming episode of the long-running PBS home improvement series “This Old House,” which is bringing much-needed attention to apprenticeship training with their 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 — that parents, teachers, guidance counselors and college recruiters are only pushing college.

The “This Old House” team recently came to Washington and joined me for a conversation with policymakers on what we can do together to build the well-trained workforce that will rebuild America.

For instance, families are encouraged to save for their child’s higher education using tax-free “529” accounts. That’s great, but 529s only cover college costs, not apprenticeship training. When a child is born, we don’t know if they’ll 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 both needed and valued.

Moving forward, we must show more legislators, educators and business leaders examples of existing 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, or 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 U.S., 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 only focusing 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 certainly 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.

Rep. Donald Norcross is a Democrat representing New Jersey’s 1st District. He  founded the Bipartisan Building Trades Caucus and is a co-chairman of the Rebuilding America Task Force.

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