Shortcuts and stalling is harming our workforce

Our nation is ready for President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE’s pledged best infrastructure in the world, but this month people across the country are pouring into Washington, D.C. with the same message: America’s workforce is not. 

The inclusion of workforce development in the White House’s infrastructure plan is encouraging, but the problem isn’t only manpower – in the midst of a skills shortage, the serious questions of worker experience and safety loom too large to ignore.

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By now, most people have heard about the “skills gap,” when potential workers don’t have the right skills to meet the labor market’s needs, and the “grey wave,” when older generations are reaching retirement age without anyone to step into their shoes because of the skills gap. Yet the lack of supply of young, skilled workers is just one side of the story: the strong demand for workers never lessened, resulting in smaller companies becoming less able to provide competitive compensation to hire workers and bigger companies taking shortcuts to fill vacancies. Dangerous shortcuts.

To truly be competent at a job, you start with solid fundamental skills and knowledge and build upon them with experience – just like how we first teach children the alphabet and then help them use that knowledge to practice and eventually learn how to read. 

However, to make up for the lack of skilled workers, companies lowered their skill and experience standards when hiring and promoting. Many also stopped providing professional development for both new and long-time employees. As older generations retired, younger workers, who were hired under lesser criteria and perhaps never properly learned the fundamental building blocks of their field, were promoted to leadership positions. This cycle, where an absence of certain skills and expertise is not required of employees nor corrected by employers, negatively impacts the proceeding generations of workers who themselves never get the appropriate training to do their jobs, and equally importantly, how to do them safely. And that’s when things start to fall apart and people are injured.

Making matters worse, when people get hurt on the job, it’s almost always the less-experienced, new or non-full-time employee – of which there would be many more following a massive infrastructure expenditure. As a country and as businesses, we can’t responsibly direct more workers to rebuild our nation unless we’re also willing to commit to make sure they are safe, particularly following troubling reports of federal workplace safety efforts including ongoing leadership position vacancies, dwindling numbers of federal workplace safety inspectors, and the postponement or elimination of various worker safety regulations. 

The administration’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 budget raises both alarm and relief in this regard: in what it describes as the recalibration and consolidation of programs, the budget would represent an overall significant reduction in workforce development funding and programs, including a $1 billion reduction in just Title I state grants under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) alone. On the other hand, the budget does direct additional federal money to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to enable enforcement and employer compliance programs.

However, we also shouldn’t rely on enforcement to maintain safe workplaces: a culture of safety is key and only established by repeating behavior. Internalizing such a culture that would empower workers to keep themselves and their colleagues safe is only possible by integrating safety into every step of the workforce development process and through valuable real-life experience. 

Simply put, the administration’s initial focus on America’s workforce in the released infrastructure plan is a good start, but our workers need more: comprehensive and significant federal action and funding, and to be in the context of ensuring worker safety. 

Industry leaders, workers, educators, and advocates alike are in D.C. this month because we have to raise the bar, but we can’t do it alone. We know we must, with certainty, recommit to higher-standards and experience as well as replace a culture of shortcuts with one of safety, but we need federal support through legislation and programs such as Pell Grants and the Carl D. Perkins Act. We are here to ensure our youth and workers have all the opportunities and education they need so that we are all ready when the president calls on us to help build our best America yet. We just ask that you listen.

Rick Baldridge is the global reliability leader at Cargill and past-Chair of the Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP) and current SMRP Government Relations Chair.