Who will build, manage and maintain our future?

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Marta Jewson

The intersection of S. Pierce and Banks Street after heavy rains flooded parts of New Orleans on July 10, 2019.

Another weekend, another NOLA Ready alert. Move your car to higher ground. Prepare to boil your drinking water. Take inventory of your valuables and hope there aren’t any more cars (!) clogging the city’s drainage system. When a medium-to-heavy rain becomes a signal of the apocalypse, something isn’t right.

15 years since Hurricane Katrina, the future sometimes feels more likely to be a regression to caveman days than the utopian, technologically automated paradise we might have hoped for. When the whole system goes offline, mechanics become important while computer programmers become irrelevant.

Our future ability to perform day-to-day errands, let alone recover from storms and weather disruptions, relies on malfunctioning infrastructure in desperate need of repairs and improvements. Confronting this will require dramatically rethinking the way we prioritize and place value on skills and the work they produce. As lofty as our economic development goals are, how will we ever be able to keep up if we don’t have the workforce to build, maintain and repair our infrastructure?

All this is compounded by a climate crisis, with more frequent and severe storms, leaving our city and region prone to the ever-increasing cost of preparing for, and then rebuilding after disasters. Meanwhile, industries related to hazard mitigation and disaster recovery are thriving.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Katrina was the first $100 billion hurricane. Hurricane Florence, in 2018, is estimated to have cost $24 billion dollars. The price tag for Puerto Rico’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Maria, a year earlier, is estimated at more than $102 billion.

Within all those numbers are recovery-based jobs that require skills and experience that our current workforce is just not prepared to meet —- and won’t be if we don’t do something about it. I can’t help but wonder whether these recovery efforts would be cheaper if there were simply more people with the skills and aptitudes to do the work. But, unfortunately, our school systems and collective mindsets seem unwilling to shift toward a more sustainable future of education, work, and life.

Meeting our workforce needs will require a thoughtful mix of technical exposure and training that gives students an opportunity to acquire transferrable skills needed to get a job, keep a job, and earn a promotion. Workforce investment boards across the country, tasked with understanding the full range of industrial needs, recognize that employers look for new hires with a demonstrated ability to be reliable, take initiative, and work well on a team with the confidence and grace to lead.

It’s an education that should begin long before graduation. Work-based learning — while students are still in school — has proven an effective way to keep young people from becoming disengaged in the learning process, while also providing opportunities for creativity and expanded horizons for students who are hungry to learn beyond the walls of their classrooms. Students need more opportunities to experience their education in a real-world context while gaining the technical and transferable skills that make for workplace success.

Whether in response to natural and manmade disasters or simply to maintain and manage the ever-expanding built environment, the jobs need is higher than ever in carpentry and construction, engineering, and infrastructure management. Entry-level positions such as carpenter’s helpers and laborers — jobs that require little or no prior experience, professional degrees or certification — are projected to grow by 12 percent over the next 10 years. That’s significantly faster than the national workforce as a whole.

Besides, the median pay for these jobs — which in 2017 already averaged more than $16-an-hour nationally — is only going to increase with the cost of living and continued shortages in the labor market. These are positions that historically have been a pathway to immediate advancement based on demonstration of soft skills, such as showing up on time, working well on a team and looking for more work when a job is done.

Classes such as shop, journalism and other electives aren’t new concepts. But what used to be commonly available under the rubric of “vocational education” or “vo-tech,” in recent decades has taken a backseat to education reform initiatives that place a higher value on the kind of academic achievement that can be measured by standardized tests and college acceptance rates. We have a responsibility to encourage young people to be excited about alternative careers by presenting them with the prestige and dignity they deserve.

This shift away from workplace-relevant, project-based learning ignores research showing that students enrolled in career-technical education programs are less likely to drop out. Better yet, these students are more likely to perform better in their other classes and to continue their educations after high school. Beyond developing technical skills and promoting academic achievement, the WestEd Research Agency also notes that one of the primary benefits of work-based learning is “to advance students’ social and emotional development toward adulthood, including their identity formation and their sense of self-efficacy.”

As far as we can see into the future, the biggest challenge facing the state of Louisiana is coastal restoration and protection. As many studies confirm, the state loses more than a football field of soil every hour. Unfortunately, this is a problem that’s too urgent to be solved by providing tax credits for solar panel installation and other measures aimed at managing climate change over the course of several decades’ time.

We need a skilled and ready workforce right now to elevate homes, design water systems, repair damage, and innovate new technologies to build, manage and maintain our vulnerable infrastructure. When that infrastructure continues to fail in the immediate future, we also need it to help our neighbors repair damage after floods and heavy rainfall. Not only do we have a responsibility to engage in the regular maintenance work of fixing the things that are broken, but we desperately need to be proactive if the Louisiana coast, New Orleans included, is going to have a sustainable future.

There’s no denying a correlation between academic attainment and future income. Statistically, people with higher degrees tend to enjoy higher earnings later in life. But we shouldn’t fall for the mistaken assumption that the only time to continue education comes immediately after high school. Disregarding socioeconomic status or personal history and requiring formal certification before students gain access to the workplace perpetuates an inequity that we simply can’t afford anymore.

Equipping students with transferable workplace skills is an urgent need that requires rethinking our education system and the way we assess and place value upon an individual’s work and skills. The jobs already exist, clamoring to be filled. And we can be confident in this investment by knowing that the work is in an industry that can’t be exported overseas. We can’t afford to undermine a person’s decision to take a job where they might work with their hands or — God forbid — get those hands dirty.

The bottom line is that if we don’t rethink the way we prepare students for work at all levels, we won’t have nearly enough people to do the work that needs to be done. With or without another brutal hurricane, we’ll all be in deep water. Indeed, we already are.

Aaron Frumin is the Founder and Executive Director of unCommon Construction, A non-profit that uses the build process to enhance learning and empower youth to lead the workforce after high school or college.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens Founder Karen Gadbois.

 

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