For four years, “infrastructure week” was a promise unfulfilled — a bumper sticker on a car stuck in the driveway. With the recent passage of the American Rescue Plan and introduction of its infrastructure package, the Biden administration now has its chance.
Infrastructure spending has typically been focused on investments in things like roads, bridges and pipes — the physical infrastructure that makes up and connects our country. But when thinking about what infrastructure means for the nation, or could mean for it, the administration and policy makers should expand their vision. If the country is going to invest in infrastructure, it shouldn’t be just about roads. It should also be about people, with an intentional focus on the talent and training that prepares them for today’s jobs — and tomorrow’s.
Investing in talent isn’t just smart, it’s also necessary. The country faces a continuing economic downturn, despite the drop in the unemployment rate to around 6.2 percent. While that is an improvement over last year’s alarming numbers, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The National Women’s Law Center found that over the course of the pandemic, more than 2.3 million women have left the labor force. And people of color, particularly Black and Latino adults, face higher unemployment rates than white adults.
Though the American Rescue Plan includes provisions that can help unemployed Americans now, we must look to the future. The growth of automation and artificial intelligence mean that, now more than ever, we need a more flexible and responsive higher learning system. We need a system that prepares Americans for the changing nature of work — a system that equips people to work in concert with technology, doing the human work that machines can’t do.
Just like America’s roads and bridges, building the nation’s talent for the future requires strategic investment, careful planning and partnerships. Investing in people by creating high-quality jobs with good wages should be the goal. But to make that a reality, we need to rethink how our current education and workforce training systems operate. Right now, those systems operate independently, and it’s difficult for learners to move between them. We’ve siloed learners, asking them to choose between short-term, job-driven training and long-term education. That can no longer be acceptable; connecting these systems is essential to the nation’s recovery and prosperity.
Allowing learners to use federal support, like the Pell Grant, for high-quality and connected short-term programs could build a different kind of bridge — one that links training, education and employment. Pell Grants help millions of students afford college. But right now, those grants can’t be used for short-term credential programs at community colleges, which are more accessible for many students, including those who are adults and parents with busier schedules.
Data show that Pell Grants for short-term programs can work for students. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education piloted a program that expanded Pell Grant eligibility to programs that range from eight to 15 weeks, in fields like transportation and materials moving, health professions, and mechanic and repair technologies. Students who were offered an experimental Pell Grant to pay for one of those programs were 15 percent more likely to enroll, and program completion increased by 9 percent.
But in expanding access to short-term programs, policy makers should take some important steps, including ensuring that students complete and secure well-paying jobs. They should also make sure that lower-income students and students of color aren’t tracked into programs that lead to low-wage jobs. And they should see to it that the credentials earned in these short-term programs are stackable — that is, easily transferred to other institutions if students later choose to pursue further education like an associate or bachelor’s degree. Indeed, if programs don’t lead to higher-wage jobs or yield stackable credentials, they could actually deepen existing inequities rather than increasing opportunities for all Americans.
This is a crucial time for our country, but it’s also a great opportunity for lasting improvement. By opening the door to short-term programs to students at every income level, we’ll guarantee that all students can earn the credentials they need for employment. And if we do it right, we can also make certain they have access to the learning that will give them the human work skills they will need throughout their careers. If we’re going to invest in the physical infrastructure of the country, let’s also invest in its people: today’s, and tomorrow’s, students.