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Washington, D.C. — As the country faces down the worst monthly job numbers since the Great Depression, Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) in an interview with Rachel Unruh, chief of external affairs at National Skills Coalition, called for a big federal infrastructure bill to be part of the national response to the pandemic.
“We need to go much bigger than just a typical infrastructure bill,” Horsford said in a new episode of NSC’s Skilled America podcast. “It needs to be about human infrastructure and what we’re doing to ensure that people have the skills that they need for the types of jobs and career opportunities that will come in the future.”
Mark Kessenich, President & CEO of the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (WRTP), who joined Horsford on the podcast agreed. “It’s not just about bricks and mortar,” said Kessenich. “It’s about people and that’s what we’re really investing in when we invest in the public infrastructure.”
Horsford and Kessenich’s comments are consistent with National Skills Coalition’s call for a people-centered infrastructure that addresses immediate workforce shortages, supports training partnerships with industry, provides apprenticeship opportunities and support services to newly trained workers, and ensures investments are available to local workers who have been previously excluded due racial or gender barriers.
Building an infrastructure package that addresses the significant job loss caused by Covid-19 requires a focus on equity and inclusion. Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately impacted by the economic impacts of the crisis due to decades of policies that promote and perpetuate racial inequity and occupational segregation in jobs that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.
Without a significant investment in skills training as part of a federal infrastructure bill, a “large number of women, people of color, those who quite honestly have been a lot of the essential workers right now or those who were displaced because they were working on the front lines” will get left behind, said Horsford. “if we’re going to target this support, we need to do it in areas where there was major displacement and where opportunities were not there for people to begin with to advance and to grow – not just for a job, it’s about making sure that people have opportunities to pursue the careers that help them advance personally and professionally.”
Both Horsford and Kessenich are quick to note that skills training alone is not enough. “It’s not only about job training, it’s also about financial literacy,” Horsford said. “It’s about parental engagement and how those people going through training are also getting training on how to work with their children in the school environment. It’s about building community development so that the jobs that are being created are being done with employers that actually have an ethic that values the community that they operate in and that are in partnership with that community to meet other societal needs, such as food insecurity or other challenges.”
There are a set of strategies that both Horsford and Kessenich know are essential for gender and racial inclusion based on their experience running successful training programs. For over a decade, Horsford led the Culinary Training Academy, the largest job training program in Nevada, placing over 80 percent of graduates into good-paying jobs. Kessenich’s organization has placed thousands of Milwaukee residents into good-paying construction and manufacturing jobs.
According to Kessenich, an infrastructure package must include investments in support services like boots, tools, transportation, and childcare. He also wants to see support for pre-employment training and for individuals during their first year on the job. And most of all, dedicated resources for the capacity required to build strong partnerships with industry.
“It’s really important to have all of the employers and all of those trade partners engaged fully in the opportunity because what career choice someone makes, which employer they end up with, makes a big difference in terms of someone’s success,” Kessenich said.
Horsford also talked about the need to invest in support services, partnerships, and ensure workers are paid a living wage. “The reason I like joint labor management partnerships is that it’s labor working with the private sector and the community to meet a need and it’s very balanced in that the goals of the training are not just for the employer, they’re also about making sure that the worker gets skills and workforce protections,” Horsford said. “If you’re an essential worker, then you should be getting an essential level wage to do that job particularly during a pandemic. That’s not the case right now and we need to change that going forward, especially since these jobs are primarily held by women and communities of color.”
“There are a lot of people that are going to say, ‘well let’s just go back to normal’,” Horsford added. “I don’t want us to go back to normal because normal for a lot of people, for those 53 million Americans was inequitable to begin with. They were already living on the margins. They could barely survive. So why would we want to go back to a place where for 44% of the American workforce, it really wasn’t a very secure place to be.”
Horsford concluded that lawmakers shouldn’t just do the “bare minimum” but “re-imagine what it is we can do for the American worker going forward.”