Everyone seems to agree that the country’s infrastructure needs a serious upgrade. But negotiations between the White House and various factions in Congress have gotten hung up on the very idea of what counts as “infrastructure.”
Much of the debate has simply been around the overall size of the investment—with the Senate agreeing on Wednesday to take up a $1 trillion plan that is much less ambitious than the White House and Democrats in Congress had initially recommended.
But the debate over money has been underpinned by a larger philosophical disagreement about what kind of infrastructure investment is needed to secure the health, resilience, and stability of our economy. A narrow view centers on mostly material investments in public works. A more expansive definition includes broad-based investment in the skills and capabilities that will continue to reshape our economy in the decades to come.
Critics of President Biden—as well as some who share his policy priorities—argue for the narrow definition, one focused solely on investing in construction or transportation. Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri went so far as to argue that Congress needed to “get to a definition of infrastructure that the country would have always accepted.”
But that misses the point—the infrastructure the country needed in the 1950s when the Highway Act was enacted is not the infrastructure we need today. To be sure, addressing the existing weakness of our crumbling interstate highways and the need for more energy-efficient affordable housing will spur short-term growth. However, it will do little to bolster the country’s ability to compete in an increasingly global, technology-driven economy.
The broader definition—championed by Biden himself—recognizes that job training is integral to the country’s future. Infrastructure is not just about research and development in energy-efficient vehicles, but also about preparing people for the green jobs required to build such vehicles. It requires expanding broadband access in rural communities and urban centers alike, while also providing the education and training that people need to take advantage of this access to develop their careers.
In other words, education and training are the “roads and bridges” to long-term prosperity. Of course, choosing one definition of infrastructure over another cannot solve all of the problems that we face, but a broad-based view of infrastructure can help unlock the full potential of our economy.
Before the pandemic, careers in fields such as food preparation, office administration, and transportation were at high risk of automation. The pandemic rapidly accelerated these trends, with the World Economic Forum now estimating that half of all workers will need reskilling by 2025. And since as many as four in 10 of the jobs lost due to the pandemic will never come back, millions of displaced workers will need support navigating the so-called “first-mile problem” of learning new skills to reenter the labor market.
That is especially true in an increasingly digital economy where a growing number of jobs, from nurses and home health aides to construction workers and warehouse packers and pickers, now require tech skills. We can invest all we want in advanced manufacturing or broadband access, but it must be combined with investments that ensure workers can operate heavy machinery, lay cable, and install solar panels. That means expanding access to education and training to ensure that people can do the work our infrastructure requires.
In some cities and regions across America, the work has already begun. In Louisville, the mayor’s office, large regional employers like Humana, and training providers are joining forces to help displaced workers prepare for in-demand tech jobs. These partnerships are not only closing urgent talent gaps for employers in fields like data science, but also providing new routes to economic mobility for workers navigating an uncertain labor market. That’s the sort of training infrastructure the federal government should be supporting.
Fortunately—even as Congress moves forward with a bill that takes a more narrow view—the Biden Administration recognizes that skills training must play a major role in the next wave of infrastructure investment. The American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan include historic investments in education and workforce development, with a special focus on community colleges, apprenticeships, and accelerated training programs. These large-scale investments will support the creation of two million more apprenticeships, expand training for dislocated workers, and help community colleges reach individuals who cannot readily access in-person training opportunities. They must be preserved in any infrastructure plan, bipartisan or otherwise.
If we are to build back better, we must invest in the skills infrastructure to chart a path out of the pandemic. Our shared prosperity depends not just on physical roads and bridges, but also on better pathways to opportunity in tomorrow’s world of work.
Lisa Lewin is CEO of General Assembly, which pioneered the coding bootcamp model and specializes in preparing learners and employers with in-demand digital skills. General Assembly is a member of the Adecco Group, a talent advisory and solutions company.