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Why investing in intellectual infrastructure must be part of Trump's job plan

The following article was written by Zenith President and CEO Peter Taylor for the Dallas Morning News

President-elect Donald Trump centered his campaign on being the jobs president, promising to create 25 million jobs over the next decade. Starting next month, he’ll have the opportunity to put those words into action.

Regardless of the initial composition and sequencing of proposals from the new administration — be it trade or tax deals, a new infrastructure package or business incentives — there is one component that can’t be undervalued: career training for our workers.

We can’t just pay lip service to the importance of career training. Skill-building programs need to be written into any comprehensive jobs package, because career education is the key to turning temporary positions into well-paying, long-term jobs in the U.S.

Take infrastructure, for example. Trump has said he will work to rebuild our nation’s crumbling infrastructure by investing $1 trillion in projects to keep jobs in this country. But one of the gaping questions for any such proposal will be whether we have the supply of skilled workers necessary to realize a meaningful return on a major investment in infrastructure.

Any credible path forward on infrastructure investment must look at our country’s very real skills gap — the result of insufficient vocational training opportunities for America’s youth and young adults.

The Obama administration’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was criticized for not spending more on “shovel-ready” projects that would have put more unemployed construction workers back to work. But all the shovel-ready investment in the world will find itself grinding quickly to a halt without workers who have the skills necessary to step in right away.

Consider this: middle-skill jobs — those requiring more than a high school education but not a four-year degree — make up 55 percent of the Texas labor market. However, only 43 percent of the state’s workers are trained to this skill level. We’re seeing a similar skills gap around the country. That’s why any investment in physical infrastructure must be coupled with an investment in “intellectual infrastructure.”

As the president of Zenith Education Group, a nonprofit provider of career education with a mission to help students succeed, we understand that building the framework for long-term sustainable industry growth and investment means creating a real-time pipeline of U.S. workers with the skills engineers and contractors need. Which is why, beyond the training we provide, each of our four Texas campuses is accredited by the National Center for Construction Education and Research, enabling our students to earn industry-recognized credentials.

But we can’t act alone. Career educators like Zenith need the help of those in private industries and state and national leaders to identify current workforce shortages, provide critical inputs to building out useful curricula to meet these needs and plan for the future of growing industries.

Recognizing the value in building an education system that works for all Americans, Trump called for an expansion of vocational and technical education in his “Contract With the American Voter.” The smartest way to make good on this contract is to prioritize career education right out of the gate, in the first 100 days, and to incorporate skills training into these policy discussions by giving both employers and educators a seat at the table.

It is also essential to bring together private industry voices and career educators — at local, state and national levels — to evaluate the current workforce gaps that exist around the country. By utilizing reliable local-level data, we can assess areas in greatest need of current workforce education training and help foster mutual investment. In the areas where the most significant skills gaps are identified, we must support apprenticeships for career education students by providing incentives to private companies to support student learning and create a customized pipeline of skilled workers.

Building these strong partnerships and strategic alliances will not only create a pipeline of skilled, U.S.-based workers for industries with workforce shortages, but will also lay the groundwork for conversations between career educators and employers to plan for future industry trends and prevent potential skills gaps.

As the early days of the new presidency reveal the top priorities for the new administration, Zenith stands willing and ready to partner with the president-elect, his administration and the private sector to invest in the intellectual infrastructure needed to create well-paying, long-term U.S. jobs.

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