Infrastructure bills could create jobs, expand equity in tech and telecom

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Under President Biden’s aggressive infrastructure plans, the deployment of new infrastructure, including broadband infrastructure, has the possibility not only to create jobs but to be inclusive to people who traditionally have been underrepresented in the technology sector, said Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, Senior Fellow of Governance Studies and Director for Technology Innovation at The Brookings Institution, during a TechTalk podcast earlier this month. The podcast delved deep into President Biden’s infrastructure plan, job creation, apprenticeship opportunities and the need for inclusion and equity as part of the infrastructure plan rollout. Guests include Dr. Algernon Austin, Senior Researcher at the Thurgood Marshall Institute; Dr. Allison Scott, Chief Executive Officer of the Kapor Center Foundation; and Dr. Rikin Thakker, Chief Technology Officer at the Wireless Infrastructure Association.

America is ranked 13th in overall quality by roads, bridges, water systems, and other critical assets compared to other countries, Lee noted. The installation of new infrastructure, particularly broadband infrastructure, is guaranteed to develop good-paying jobs, perhaps even union jobs that offer both high wages and worker security. Biden has argued that this infrastructure and jobs package could generate as many as 19 million jobs. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg estimated around 2.7 million jobs per year over a 10-year period. This workforce has the potential to be inclusive, especially in the broadband and tech sectors, where there has been no shortage of demand, Lee noted.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s infrastructure a C-minus grade, Austin said. “A lot of our infrastructure is deteriorating, and some of it is on the verge of collapse. So we desperately need a big investment in infrastructure.” The administration recognizes that it’s more than just roads and bridges and includes broadband, water, schools and housing. In addition to hard infrastructure, the legislation encompasses soft infrastructure, including the care economy. This is a win-win for the country as the United States needs to invest in infrastructure and create jobs. Both the hard infrastructure jobs and soft infrastructure jobs generally will not require a four-year college degree so the effort targets people who the economy has left behind, Austin said.

COVID-19 also changed communities as it is estimated that one in four businesses that closed because of the pandemic were permanently closed, Lee said. People of color were hurt.

Most of the jobs created by infrastructure spending are not actually infrastructure jobs, Austin pointed out. Along with construction jobs that are infrastructure related, there are supporting jobs – truck drivers, accountants, administrative assistants. Also, a lot of Black businesses closed from the pandemic because there is a high level of unemployment in the Black community, so those people stopped spending. “So when you have investments like infrastructure investments and it ripples out throughout the economy, it increases Black employment. And then more Black people spend more and can support those Black businesses,” he continued. Because about two-thirds of the infrastructure jobs are support jobs and re-spending jobs, a broad sector of society benefits. While Austin lamented that the bill is being downsized, he said money for job training and apprenticeships can provide people a career path.

The wireless industry has been pretty resilient and successful over the past 18 months, Lee noted. Where are the opportunities to get people back to work in the wireless space?

The U.S. won the race to 4G, creating millions of jobs and seeing innovations through the app economy, said WIA’s Thakker. Fifth-generation networks are going to transform how people and machines communicate – even how communities are connected to each other and how industries do business. “What’s unique about 5G is that it is being deployed at low-band, mid-band and high-band frequencies.” Because 5G is being deployed across those spectrum bands, it will provide ubiquitous coverage and capacity. “But one of the key enablers for all of this is the availability of a skilled workforce.” Demand is outpacing the skilled technicians needed to deploy 5G services, and 5G is expected to create 4.6 million jobs in the next 10 years if the networks are rolled out on time. A delay in deploying the network leads to a delay in the innovation the network deployment brings, Thakker continued. The Federal Communications Commission realized lack of a skilled workforce could be a barrier to wireless buildouts and created a working group to address this challenge through BDAC, the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, which Thakker co-chaired. Among other things, the lack of standardized nationwide training programs, lack of funding to support apprenticeships, no standardized job codes and retiring workers contribute to the lack of a skilled telecom workforce.

Education and curriculum have had a difficult time keeping up with employer demand, Thakker noted. WIA is working with five community colleges under the Department of Labor’s “Closing the Skills Gap” grant and expanding its Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP). Registered apprenticeship programs have two components: on-the-job training through employers and classroom training that can be provided through the employer, community college or WIA. “Colleges actually appreciate WIA’s role as the national sponsor of the TIRAP program because it allows them to stay focused on curriculum development. We help them identify the skills the employers want and they can then focus on the course development and delivery.”

Women, people of color and veterans are underrepresented in telecom, Thakker noted. The goal for TIRAP is to have at least 50% of apprentices coming from underrepresented groups. The Biden administration is addressing this by including a $48 billion investment through registered apprenticeships. Rep. Yvette Clark (D-NY) and Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.)  have addressed this through introducing the Telecommunications Skilled Workforce Act.

Employers that want to get involved should understand that a telecom and broadband apprenticeship program already exists that they can plug into at no cost, Thakker commented. WIA can work with employers to identify occupations under the program and indeed there are incentives to offset employer costs to enroll apprentices. The Department of Labor should be commended for requiring that 50 percent of apprentices be from underrepresented communities. Community colleges and Institutions of Higher Education should reach out to WIA if they want to explore offering broadband courses to work together to create the curriculum. WIA can also help connect them with regional employers in its role as an industry intermediary.

Prior to COVID-19, research showed that Black Americans were overrepresented in at-risk roles. Meanwhile, the tech ecosystem is driving the economy and the tech sector is predominately represented by white men, said Scott. During COVID-19, families faced high unemployment and the inability to pay bills while billionaires got richer. That said, the country is at a unique moment of opportunity in rebuilding the economy. “We see this as one opportunity to increase equity and opportunity across the entire technology sector as just one really interesting opportunity within the American Jobs Plan. Using apprenticeship opportunities can provide an onramp from lower-wage, lower-skilled jobs that might be at risk for being replaced by automation into tech jobs that might be more lucrative. “We have to ensure that people of color are at the center of the innovation economy and included in these future-proof jobs. So this can be in R&D, manufacturing, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), clean energy, all of these areas that are called for in the jobs plan.” Scott said. “We also need to think about all of the different upskilling pathways, so modernizing public and community colleges, and thinking about how the curriculum might align with the industry needs, addressing the skills gaps of employers and making sure that employers are evaluating the upskilled candidates in the same way.” The private sector also needs to invest in deploying capital and stimulating the economy.

Pew Research published a study showing double-digital increases in terms of broadband use among rural, Black, Latino and low-income residents, Lee said. How do we convert that increased consumption to increased job opportunities, she asked.

Not only do policymakers need to support areas of job growth, but they also need to invest adequately in our education system, Austin said.

“Our investment in education is going to be critical in terms of how we advance as a nation and how we emerge, hopefully, as a more equitable society after this pandemic,” Scott agreed. About 15 million students without broadband access were disconnected to instruction when COVID-19 hit. “We have to raise the alarm that to move forward, we have to address these foundational disparities,” she said. “We can’t keep having deeply unequal schools and opportunities affecting students early in the pipeline and assume we will somehow then create a diverse and inclusive tech workforce.”

While there is great opportunity for job creation, apprenticeship programs and expanding the STEM educational pipeline to close some of these skills gaps, the U.S. will need to steer clear of the some “wraparounds” like lack of a driver’s license or not passing a background check from something that happened 20 years ago, that exclude marginalized people from being part of these conversations, Lee commented.

You can listen to the podcast here.