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The race for infrastructure jobs

February 9, 2018 GMT


The smart people of the District may be onto something.

At the start of the 2017-2018 school year, Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, announced a new public-partnership, the DC Infrastructure Academy, a program pegged to plug people into demanding jobs.

“The infrastructure industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the country, and last year, half of D.C.’s open infrastructure jobs went unfilled,” the mayor said. “The DC Infrastructure Academy will give D.C. residents the chance to learn the nuts and bolts of what makes our city run everything from utilities to transportation and logistics to operations and green technologies and ensure that they are first in line when it comes to securing the infrastructure jobs of today and tomorrow.”

Job No. 1: Meet industry demand.

Keen eyes will notice the tunnel vision of the mayor’s remarks, such as her use of the words “our city,” “D.C. residents,” “first in line” and “ensure” words, when strung together, too often lead to huge government subsidies that support the status quo instead of innovation and the free market.

Hold the cynicism for a moment, because if we’re going to even pretend to make America great again, we cannot afford to ignore the promise of an America that works and the opportunities afforded people prepared to fill unmet needs.

Why aren’t the jobs filled? Education Secretary Betsy DeVos set a mark Thursday, informing an audience at the U.S. Conference of Mayors: “Today, across states and industries, there are 6 million job openings, as the ‘blue collar’ jobs of yesterday become the ‘blue tech’ jobs of today But employers many in your communities report that they cannot find qualified people to fill those openings. Those jobs require specific skill sets and customized certification.”

I also applaud Mrs. DeVos for telling mayors to “stop” blocking students’ paths by institutionalizing four-year-degree-only mindsets.

“There are many avenues to gain what individual students want and what employers need: industry-recognized certificates, two-year degrees, stackable credits, credentials and licensures, advanced degrees, badges, four-year degrees, micro-degrees, apprenticeships,” she said. “All of these are valid pursuits.”

TV host Mike Rowe, of “Dirty Jobs” fame, has taken issue with the well-trod road from school-to-work as well. In an exclusive interview with Tom Quimby for The Washington Times, the Baltimore native was spot on in explaining how the education system doesn’t work.

“If you think about the impact of removing shop from high school, you can’t look at it simply as a budget thing,” he said. “You have to look at it in terms of, ’What better message could you possibly send to a kid who’s trying to figure out what’s important than by simply removing the entire discipline from consideration?

“That’s what happened when vocational education got pulled out of high school,” Mr. Rowe said. “We made it crystal clear that all of the jobs that votech [vocational-technical school] presaged were not worth having. There’s just no other way to spin it. The jobs that are worth having are the jobs that require the things we’re teaching. And the things we’re teaching, therefore, become the things that are aspirational.”

That’s the tough, dirty job facing Miss Bowser and others involved with her Infrastructure Academy, where partners will include unions, utilities and universities; and where unemployed, underemployed and underserved men are women will be targeted beneficiaries; and where teaching and training will occur under one roof.

To label the initiative ambitious would be an understatement. To say its idealistic goals are unattainable would not be out of order, however. Jobs programs tend to drain public coffers.

Another concern is that Miss Bowser is up for re-election, and as a progressive it’s simply not in her political DNA to think outside the box or “rethink” what’s needed in the school-to-work tool box.

The timing for her initiative, though, syncs with President Trump, who is set to unveil details of his trillion-dollar-plus infrastructure plan next week, while the city is planning to rip the heart and sod from the RFK Stadium complex and build it anew as a recreation-sports-entertainment destination.

It’ll take far more than a pie-in-the-sky, routine jobs program to plug unskilled, uneducated and undereducated residents into the construction trades or appease Amazon’s demand for high-quality employees.

It’s likely the mayor’s infrastructure jobs initiative needs tweaking, and if she’s smart, she’ll start plugging away before Mr. Trump ends his State of the Union address.

Deborah Simmons can be contacted at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.