As a Massive Infrastructure Upgrade Begins, Wisconsin Needs to Invest in Its Workforce

By Megan Tanel, AEM President

Editor’s Note: This was originally published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It is being republished here with their permission. Read the original opinion piece here.

I grew up in Milwaukee County and have chosen to raise my family here. When I graduated from Wauwatosa West High School, it was a given that most students would continue to a four-year degree. My friend “wasted” time at a local four-year college before he realized carpentry was his calling. Today he runs his own local homebuilding business—and he out-earns many degree-holding people I know.

I now have children in Milwaukee County schools and, like most children in today’s schools, they too are being guided toward four-year colleges, even when it’s not a good fit for the student, their aptitude or their passions. As the president of the Milwaukee-headquartered Association of Equipment Manufacturers, I can attest to the good future a career in the trades can provide, and I hope more families and students will start to consider skilled trades as an important career path for their future and the future of our country.

Every parent wants to put their child on the path to success. But, today, success might be found in places most have not previously considered — like infrastructure. For many students, a job in infrastructure might provide a lifetime of opportunity. Wisconsin has dedicated more than $5 billion to rebuild our roads and bridges, improve transit, expand broadband access, ensure access to clean drinking water and modernize our airports.

In addition to finally developing world-class infrastructure here at home, this spending is expected to spur economic growth and supply the next generation — our kids — with good-paying careers. With more than 2 million jobs expected to join the infrastructure sector every year for the next 10 years, we must encourage our schools and elected officials and business leaders to embrace the value of workforce development.

To better understand how to maximize returns on this once-in-a-generation investment, AEM partnered with the Brookings Institution to look at best practices for workforce development. According to the report, there are 17.2 million American infrastructure workers currently employed across 91 different skilled trades. Even though this accounts for 10% of the American workforce, there are not enough skilled workers to meet the long-term demand of the infrastructure sector.

Infrastructure spending will bring millions of dollars to communities across Wisconsin for the planning and development of large-scale infrastructure projects. That means we need to be training qualified workers for long-term careers in local infrastructure operations and development, not just short-term construction jobs.

From aircraft mechanics to water treatment operators, the infrastructure labor force is made up of a wide range of talent. The broad scope of trades and technical skills needed for next-generation infrastructure development is impressive, and training for such a diverse workforce will need to be comprehensive and coordinated.

With state and local leaders now deciding how to allocate their infrastructure dollars, there is no better time to discuss the importance of workforce development. Careers in infrastructure pay better than many other options — workers can earn 30% more with the right skills.

With long project lifecycles and an abundance of work, infrastructure is an exciting career field for young, working families pursuing the American dream. This is a great way for our leaders to maximize their return-on-investment because, by investing in their workforce, communities will thrive.

In addition to creating career paths for Wisconsin’s youth, coordinated workforce development programs can also help reskill left-behind workers and prepare them for meaningful careers in the infrastructure sector. By leveraging innovative partnerships, these programs could use targeted infrastructure dollars to develop trades-based education programs, create a pipeline of high-skilled workers, and supply industry with homegrown talent to modernize Wisconsin’s infrastructure.

It’s all very doable, but it will take planning and coordination to seize this opportunity.

Parents and business leaders should call on decision-makers to include trades-based education as part of infrastructure spending. Let’s give Wisconsin’s youth and forgotten workers the opportunity to invest in their future during this massive infrastructure upgrade.

For more perspectives from AEM staff, subscribe to the AEM Industry Advisor.

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