Good jobs are among the best crime fighters
© Greg Nash

An important shift is underway in how public officials are thinking about what can be done to reverse the surge in urban violence. It appears that policymakers are beginning to meet in the middle, thank goodness, between the hard-on-crime mentality and that of defund-the-police advocates. Violent crime is a complex problem requiring a combination of rational solutions.

President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden For families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football MORE has said there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach. At his recent White House meeting with mayors and law enforcement representatives, Biden outlined a crime prevention strategy that included not only an increase in police and public safety measures but also a focus on job training initiatives.

Why? Because investment in skills training works. Gaining new, marketable skills is transformative. We’ve seen it thousands of times in hundreds of programs aimed at low-income and justice-involved youth and adults.

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One of the major drivers of crime is poverty. And as Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, has said the opposite of poverty is not wealth — it is justice.

Justice means the equitable distribution of opportunity. It’s normal for kids in the city, no matter their circumstances, to want to make something of themselves. And for a kid surrounded by criminal enterprises, it’s natural to simply make use of what’s available. If his best shot at success is proving himself useful to a gang controlling the drug trade in the neighborhood, then that’s what he’s likely to choose as the best path to a better life.

We take advantage of that which we can touch and see. If someone hasn’t a view beyond their immediate, narrow surroundings, they’re bound to grasp only for those things most apparent. In many urban environments, that amounts to criminal activity, which leads to a cycle of hopelessness, desperation, and often incarceration. Overemphasis on punishing the crime, and lack of effective prevention upstream can only make matters worse. That’s what New York City mayoral candidate, Eric Adams, who attended the White House gathering, was talking about when he said, “We can’t continue to respond to symptoms. It’s time to respond to the underlying causes.”

The business community has an important role to play in the reversal of this plight. Take for example the shortage of affordable homes for rent and homeownership, particularly in urban centers where many young professionals are returning, as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Housing unaffordability is being exacerbated by a persistent labor shortage in residential construction. The shortage of workers is severely affecting housing costs.

The struggle to hire skilled laborers is a major contributing factor in the building industry’s inability to adequately ramp up housing supply.

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Government figures show that the nation is suffering a shortfall of at least 200,000 workers in construction. The labor force still in the building trades is comprised predominately of Baby Boomers who are rapidly aging out of the workforce.

The gap can be turned around. By doing so, we can simultaneously contribute to the fight against crime. As a nation we need to build the next generation of skilled tradespeople in construction. That means recruiting more among women, veterans, and high school graduates, for sure. But in the context of the dual crises that cities face today — rising crime and unaffordable housing — the need to train and place urban young people for good job opportunities is urgent.

Imagine the difference it would make when thousands more at-risk youth gain access to certification programs and job placement in trade jobs such as carpentry, electrical, plumbing, building construction, HVAC, masonry, and solar installation. Individuals who face limited job opportunities may be more likely to commit a crime. Conversely, improvement in labor market conditions is associated with a decrease in crime rates.

Easier said than done. It will take combined effort on the part of government, the private sector, and social impact investors, both in terms of funds and a devotion to the cause. Hard work and commitment. That is what is required if we are to apply the lessons of W. E. B. Du Bois, when he wrote in a “The Souls of Black Folk,” “The chief problem in any community cursed with crime is not punishment of the criminals, but the preventing of the young from being trained to crime.”

Let’s go about that challenge by training the young people of our cities for good jobs in the building trades.

Brady is president and CEO of the Home Builders Institute (HBI). The nonprofit organization conducts 375 trade skills programs in 42 states with 13,000 active students.