The hotly discussed $550 billion infrastructure bill represents a revival of bipartisanship, but also a potentially missed opportunity to revive America’s economic foundation: manufacturing. We have not seen a comprehensive investment in the sector in more than 70 years, and the consequences are clear: a widening skills gap, crumbling roads, bridges and highways, a lack of innovative vision, dependence on overseas production and more.
While the bipartisan plan is a step in the right direction, it lacks a nationally scalable training pipeline to bridge the manufacturing skills gap required to rebuild our infrastructure.
The United States is among the few first-world nations that does not subsidize vocational training programs and manufacturing base, putting us at a disadvantage when compared to our international peers.
This growing issue was addressed in President Biden’s original infrastructure proposal, in which $566 billion was dedicated to manufacturing upgrades, supply chain resiliency, sector training, research and development, and more. In the bipartisan bill, the amount allocated to manufacturing is $0. Yes, zero dollars.
Removing manufacturing, and the prerequisite manufacturing training pipeline, from the equation seriously handicaps America’s economic growth potential for decades to come. The best supporting evidence is found quoting Biden’s own plan:
“The U.S. manufacturing sector accounts for 70 percent of business R&D expenditure, 30 percent of productivity growth, and 60 percent of exports. Manufacturing is a critical node that helps convert research and innovation into sustained economic growth… While manufacturing jobs have been a ladder to middle-class life, we have let our industrial heartland be hollowed out, with quality jobs moving abroad or to regions with lower wages and fewer protections for workers.”
This isn’t a situation where the private sector gave it a try or two and threw in the towel. Companies have tried, and largely failed, for decades to establish a workable training pipeline. The problem consistently boils down to lack of instructors and lack of candidates. We’re at the point where legislative intervention to forcibly create and fund a pipeline is the best solution for course correction.
Ignoring the problem
Essentially, the current bipartisan plan is the legislative equivalent of giving a man a fish instead of teaching him how to fish. Legislators are crafting a bill under the assumption that we have an advanced and national manufacturing training pipeline, equipped with a sufficient pool of instructors ready to hit the ground running. We do not – and we desperately need one.
Fewer and fewer Americans have learned or maintained skills like welding, machining, computer-aided manufacturing and more since the end of World War II. We’re now experiencing a silver tsunami as Americans who do possess these skills are retiring and there are no workers lined up to replace them.
Despite the Bureau of Labor Statistics noting that manufacturing added 27,000 jobs in July 2021, the sector is still 400,000 positions short compared to mid-2020. At this rate, Deloitte estimates manufacturing will have 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030, one consequence of which will be $1 trillion unrealized GDP.
This will also become a greater issue after the infrastructure plan is approved and the focus shifts to execution. Without the investment in manufacturing, it will be a tremendous undertaking to execute the bipartisan infrastructure plan on a reasonable timetable, within agreed-upon costs and with the appropriate labor force.
Compromise and bipartisanship are important and the efforts made to restore them are applaudable, but manufacturing cannot be the sacrifice made to do it.
Re-focusing on the solution
It’s too late to change course; legislators are eying a final consensus on the bipartisan bill by Oct. 1. However, it’s not too late to advocate for the solution that –more than anything else – will help alleviate these issues: training.
There are several ways to do this:
The Biden administration and the Defense Department can expand the SkillsBridge program’s focus on manufacturing. More than 200,000 veterans rejoin civilian life every year and struggle to begin a new career. The program provides them a plethora, and often overwhelming, list of options to explore. It would be more effective to sharpen the focus on critical-need sectors, like manufacturing, and illuminate clear pathways to certification and employment.
The Biden administration and legislators can work with companies to establish accelerated training hubs, encouraging more Americans to earn certifications like welding or machining and likely begin their career with the company that trained them.
Companies can commit themselves to “U.S.-made” and be more vocal about the sector’s urgent staffing needs.
The bipartisan infrastructure plan is a step in the right direction but it strips away too many elements of Biden’s original approach designed to fix manufacturing, America’s economic foundation, and help rebuild the sector’s talent pipeline.
This threat to our economic foundation is as real of a threat to the country as World War I and World War II; it’s just less visible to everyday Americans. We need to respond to it as aggressively and seriously as we would to any other threat.
More than anything else, training a new generation of welders, machinists and other manufacturing professionals will push us toward a solution. As an American and a former Naval officer, I believe corporations, political leaders and everyday citizens share a responsibility to make that a reality for our shared good.
Hernan Luis y Prado is the CEO of Workshops for Warriors, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rebuilding America’s advanced manufacturing sector one veteran at a time.