Biden's visit spotlights technical colleges, a key to infrastructure building

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  • Joe Biden
    Joe Biden
    46th and current president of the United States

Dec. 1—Behind the competing political messages surrounding President Joe Biden's visit to Minnesota Tuesday was a different narrative:

The massive investment in infrastructure he was touting comes at a crucial time for the institutions that are critical to training the workers who will actually be tasked with pouring the pavement, welding the girders, replacing the lead water pipes, and installing the electric-vehicle charging stations that the plan promises to bring to fruition.

Biden's visit, his first to Minnesota since being elected, was staged at Dakota County Technical College, not a derelict bridge that needs replacing. That was no accident, Biden said. "Places like this are gonna train the next generation of workers to do the jobs that my infrastructure law and our 'Build Back Better Act' are gonna put into even greater demand," he said.

Indeed, and the tech schools know it, and therein lies a tension.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, community and technical colleges faced a bevy of challenges, from troubled for-profit institutions that left students debt-ridden to the decades-long American narrative that held up four-year liberal arts degrees but seemed unimpressed with vocational programs.

The pandemic hit the sector hard, but those who represent these institutions see the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan as a burst of adrenaline — but one they must brace themselves for. Will they be ready for a spike in interest? Will they have the staff and facilities? And will students, the vast majority of whom come from modest means, be able to afford them?

"We certainly encourage growth in the fields that require career and technical education, but we need to match that with investments that are needed for community and technical colleges," said Zach Curtis, government relations manager for the Association for Career and Technical Education, the nation's largest organization representing the sector.

Tucked into the infrastructure package are funds that community and technical colleges can take advantage of. Biden's related "Build Back Better" bill — a $1.75 trillion plan now before the U.S. Senate — contains $5 billion for grants that could aid vocational training programs.

But Curtis said significantly more funding is needed, especially to support careers such as cybersecurity and medical research — fields that require technical workers to support the work of those with advanced degrees — that require new equipment markedly more expensive than the welding torch in a metal shop. The organization, and others like it, support expanding student financial aid programs, like federal Pell grants, which aren't currently available to everyone seeking technical training.

"We need to make sure we're not just investing in the schools, but making sure students don't have the financial barriers," Curtis said.

Representatives of technical schools say interest in their programs has already begun to spike, partly because of the news that money could be flowing into those fields, but perhaps also as part of the great American career reassessment that the pandemic appears to have spawned.

The prospect of that would be a fitting historical match for the historic infrastructure spending plan, said Aaron Sojourner, associate professor and labor economist at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

For decades, he said, one of the "most critical labor market issues" in the entire American economy has been a steady falling demand for workers with education levels of high school and below. From Rust Belt cities to rural mill towns, the effects have been pronounced, ranging from poor health to rising substance addiction problems amid crumbling infrastructure.

For Sojourner, the idea that a boost in infrastructure investment could spurn a boost in technical education — and its wages — is long overdue and should benefit the very communities who have suffered from lack of investment in the past.

"It's great to see our country stepping up to make these investments, and there are a lot of needs our communities have that the market won't necessarily step up to fill," said Sojourner, who served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the end of the Obama administration and the beginning of the Trump presidency. "The market isn't going to fix lead pipes. This will put upward pressure on wages and tighten the labor market, but after decades of worsening job quality and rising economic insecurity — especially for people who are needed to do this work, I think it's actually great news for the labor market."

Still, the challenge of aligning the skills needed with the potential workers — often referred to as the "skills gap" — will fall on technical colleges.

Justin Pate, who serves on the board of the National Association of Career and Technical Colleges, is hopeful.

"There's a lot of details yet to be determined, but what we see is resources being allocated to support the efforts to provide this technical training that's needed," said Pate, who is president and CEO of Elizabethtown Community & Technical College in Kentucky. "It's not easy to train a technical workforce. But I don't foresee the change happening so rapidly that it can't be accommodated."

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