By Angela Vullo

November 29, 2020–In the 1950s and ‘60s when a young person in our country was asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”,  the answer was likely to be an astronaut, a doctor, a teacher, or an engineer.  But, as time went on and the U.S. economy shifted further and further away from the great scientific and technological advancements of the FDR-JFK era, aspirations began to dwindle. For decades there has been a growing disconnect between one’s college education and one’s employment options. The post-industrial economy has forced many college graduates to abandon their dreams, and accept a job in social services, computer technology, or even Uber!

Meanwhile, those without a college education have gotten an even worse deal, as factories close, farms are bankrupted, and vast sections of the U.S. landscape are depopulated, leaving the remaining residents in despair.

A New Economic Direction Would Inspire Our Youth
A modern apprenticeship program.

Today, we find ourselves at the end of that post-industrial system, where mere readjustments are not even possible. With the current overall collapse of the economy, in both services and basic infrastructure, it’s time to reboot.

Our lawmakers, in an attempt to correct the problem, particularly among the youth sector, have called for certain measures, which include cancelling student debt, creating a jobs program, and raising the minimum wage, just to mention a few.  Although these are all necessary measures, none of them in themselves will suffice.

It’s time to start thinking about a whole new economy, one that will develop the country as a whole. Without an entirely new system, one in which the population, especially our young people, can plug in their dreams and aspirations, it will not work. Just as the Kennedy space program did, it’s time we take a giant leap into the future. A new economic direction can inspire our youth once again.

One small step

Prior to leaving Washington for the Thanksgiving break, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass H.R. 8294, The National Apprenticeship Act of 2020. The vote was (246-140) along party lines, with most House Democrats voting in favor and most House Republicans voting against.  However, 20 Republican members crossed the aisle to vote in favor of the legislation.

A New Economic Direction Would Inspire Our Youth
A map of apprenticeship programs in 2018; still far too few for a growing economy.

The bill was introduced by Representative Susan Davis (D-CA) in an effort “to expand the National Apprenticeship system to include apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships,” as well as to set national labor and welfare standards for apprenticeship programs. It reads in part:

The National Apprenticeship Act of 2020 invests nearly $3.5 billion over five years to expand the scale of apprenticeship opportunities, promote apprenticeships in new, in-demand industries, and streamline the process of access to apprenticeship opportunities for employees and employers. This legislation is projected to create nearly one million new apprenticeship opportunities over the next five years.

Although this legislation is an important first step, the thinking behind H.R. 8294 is much too small.  First, for an apprentice program to succeed, there needs to be vastly expanded job opportunities in productive areas of the economy. And for that, we need large-scale investments into a new, industrial economy, one that would reverse the damage of the last fifty years by modernizing our basic infrastructure and transforming our workforce.

Let’s face it.  Just as a huge portion of our water, transport, and electrical infrastructure has gone decades beyond its useful lifespan, most of the labor force that built the country prior to the 1970s is either retired or ready to retire. It’s time we inspired a new workforce.

A major infusion of capital

To achieve the kind of apprentice program the country needs would require a major infusion of capital into the productive economy. Presently, there is a bill in the U.S. Congress calling for a $4 trillion National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) to do just that. “The National Infrastructure Bank Act of 2020.” (H.R. 6422 ) is calling for creating 25 million new industrial jobs, paying Davis-Bacon wages, with a special emphasis on apprenticeship programs.  Not only does the country need the apprenticeships to train and remoralize our youth, but we need our youth to rebuild the nation.

Projects like the California Highspeed Rail Corridor (see above) need a vastly expanded skilled workforce.

Think of what the NIB could do with a $4 trillion investment into infrastructure.  Money could go to rebuilding the country as a whole, with projects from high speed to rail to broadband.  Broadband, alone, could recharge the nation, just as FDR did with rural electrification.  A network of broadband would likely have to be the first step in order to train all those young people in the rural, disadvantaged areas, and even those in urban areas, who have dropped out of college, and no longer have access to free Wi-Fi.

With a major infusion of capital into new technology, this could be the impetus to recruit millions of young people to join the workforce, and maybe even save the nation as a result.

As the younger generations are becoming increasing agitated and questioning their future, indicators show that the time is ripe for this kind of thinking.

Apprenticeships Inspire Youth

A new study issued by the Hechinger Report, a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on education, was cited in a November 23 Washington Post article, which discussed why more people with bachelor’s degrees are going back to school to learn skilled trades.

In the course of the article, several people told their stories.  Here are a few highlights:

One student, who was recently trained to be a fireman, admitted, “I was part of that generation that was told to go to college, so that’s what I did. That’s what we were supposed to do. “I spent a lot of money to end up doing … this.”

Another apprentice revealed that despite the “college for all” mindset prevalent in most high schools in America, he believes that things are changing. “We have started to see some schools going back to career technical training and supporting the fact that not everyone is going to go to college.”

An apprentice director reported, “Our apprentices are proud to be working on a team, proud to be making a living wage with excellent benefits, and proud to be part of a union that represents the hardest-working men and women in the industry.”

An apprenticeship program.

He indicated that the work is anything but monotonous, saying “Our apprentices get to build everything from barber shops to bridges and popcorn stands to power houses.”

All those interviewed found their apprenticeships highly rewarding, both monetarily and personally.

“Apprenticeships allows you to acquire a skill without going into debt, plus you will get paid as you learn.”

“The apprentices have a growing confidence in their ability as they go through the program,”

“I have learned to be a better man, husband and father,” he says. We have many apprentices that have risen to become leadmen and foremen for our contractors. There are endless opportunities for those who are willing to work hard.”

Several of the apprentices talked about their experience leading to personal growth.

“The work I do has changed me.  I get a lot of satisfaction from conquering new problems and I’m a happier and less anxious person because of it.”

You get the idea.

During a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill for The National Infrastructure Bank, a young law student said to a member of Congress, “I know that infrastructure isn’t sexy but it’s important and we need it.”

You just heard from these young people how a new, productive economic direction has made them better people, while at the same time they were making good money. That’s the kind of sexy this country needs.



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