3 Key Investments To Unlock Opportunity

“Infrastructure” connotes images of roads and bridges, the physical capital that enables movement across society. The word didn’t exist in English when some of the most economically powerful infrastructure investments were made in the 1930s. Since then, trillions of dollars have been invested in creating our physical infrastructure of roads, rails, power grids, and dams. 

Today, many of our “new” investments tend more towards maintaining the old rather than building new, and the effectiveness of infrastructure investment in driving economic growth has fallen. There is little doubt of the significant impact of those physical infrastructure investments on the advancement of interstate commerce, economic expansion, and societal fabric. But, whereas the past depended heavily upon the physical supply chains, the infrastructure of the future is increasingly about the talent supply chains, and the human capital that is most vital to the digital and the next industrial revolution. 

In the 21st century, we should prioritize investments that drive growth in the future that is developing—an age powered by technology, reliant upon the most important supply chain: that of talent. Prior to the pandemic, America’s labor markets were tight, with more available jobs than unemployed workers. But this tightness masked a costly mismatch: workers weren’t able to find jobs they were qualified for, and employers struggled to find qualified workers. This mismatch, the skills gap, is a constraint on American growth, expected to cost $2.4 trillion over the next decade.  

The pathway to opportunity needs more than repaving: we must invest for the future, not replicate the approach that worked for a different era. The Biden infrastructure plan is wise to take an expansive and modern view of infrastructure, but it should go even further in investing in people. There are three critical, high ROI investments we can make to address the skills gap, and enable the transformation of the talent supply chain, while working to ensure every American is qualified for and can access a thriving wage career: in reskilling and training, facilitating our labor markets, and making sure every American has digital access. 

First, we must make smart investments in the skills and knowledge of our workforce. Our current funding systems for higher education are based on enrollments, not student outcomes. This system is harming students, driving inequities, and costing our nation. It should change. But our approach to job training is withered and complex, and perhaps in even greater need of investment, simplification, and focus on empowering individuals. What falls between the gaps of our tradition-bound higher ed system and our small, clunky, and uncoordinated systems for making investments in job training are what today’s worker actually needs: workforce aligned, stackable, short course credentials that can help mid-career individuals pivot in the face of changing economic circumstances. We need a new approach that recognizes the emerging but effective approaches to helping today’s workers access today’s opportunities. 

Second, transitioning to a skills-based labor market, enabled by Learning and Employment Records (LER) technology, would facilitate matching in the labor market, reducing costs for employers and creating opportunity for individuals. Our labor markets currently do a poor job matching skilled individuals to thriving wage careers. Degrees are the current standard for job qualification—but they are held only by one out of three workers. Traditional degrees provide a paucity of information on skills and competencies. Most importantly, a skills-based labor market makes pathways to opportunity visible and navigable. Individuals are able to understand what education and training they need to get to where they want to go, and able to see and signal what jobs they are qualified for already. 

And third, and perhaps most urgently, we must close the digital divide. This Administration has made bold commitments to make sure every American has access to the internet. But device access and digital skills matter as well. Particularly in an era in which COVID has made public spaces like libraries inaccessible, device access is critical for Americans looking to retrain or look for work. And for mid-career workers in particular, we need to invest in digital skills. K-12 programs are teaching students to code; we can’t afford for their parents to be offline and left behind. 

Some have argued for a traditional definition of infrastructure—that it is limited to roads and bridges. The word first immigrated to the English language from its origins in France in the 1950’s, through NATO. Military planners wanted to make sure that the NATO system had the right bases in the right places—the infrastructure, in other words—so that the system as a whole could succeed, and so that NATO could prevail in any geopolitical contest. In the 1950’s, interstate highways were a critical accelerant for American growth and prosperity. Our focus today should similarly be on making the right investments in the right places—to transform and enable our talent supply chains—so that our nation and its people can succeed, compete, and thrive.

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