The Need For a “Once-in-a-Generation” Workforce
Since the 1980s, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has compiled regular “report cards” on the state of U.S. infrastructure. In its 2021 report, the ASCE found that the nation’s infrastructure averaged a “C-,” up from a “D+” in 2017 and the highest grade in twenty years. Still, the group estimated that if the “infrastructure investment gap,” is unaddressed it would cost the United States $10 trillion in lost GDP by 2039."
In November 2021, Congress approved a historic $1.2T investment in U.S. infrastructure. President Biden on a recent trip to Kansas City remarked that the Infrastructure Bill was a “once in a generation” investment. Missouri and Kansas together will receive almost $12B in new infrastructure dollars.
However, our infrastructure goals, and our 21st Century New Economy narrative, are doomed to fail unless we act with urgency to train for, and deploy, those investment dollars. Without a trained workforce and intentional story, Kansas City and all of its industry strength in construction, engineering, architecture and design, risk being left behind. The region would also fail at leveraging a once-in-a-generation opportunity to position itself nationally among employers and employees, future funders and policy makers.
In the KC region, the demand for skilled trade occupations exceeds overall employment growth at both the regional and national levels. More than half of the current workforce in skilled trades occupations will need to be replaced over the next five years. This does not include the workforce required to deploy the new-found $12B in infrastructure investment for the KC region.
But these trades are not just the industrial trades of our past. Today, our physical infrastructure is inextricably tied to our cyber infrastructure, firmly establishing cyberphysical infrastructure technologies as the most transformational opportunity to impact our lives over the next century.
Digital literacy and technical aptitude are the new “reading, writing and arithmetic” of the past. Skills in robotics, data science and analytics, systems management and cloud computing are the new basics. And if we’re really getting real, we need to start ensuring skills in artificial intelligence, software development and systems engineering are embedded into our region’s future workforce.
This kind of training values creativity, innovation and invention, communication skills and presentation; and the interpersonal skills to engage in stronger collaboration. Many if not all of these skills can be leveraged in occupations that do not require a 2- 4-year degree – a critical key to success if we are to engage disinvested populations within the region.
These massive changes in the economy require a closer connection between those who train and those who hire. Keystone has the convening power to coordinate engagement, creating collaboration across the necessary stakeholders in KC region, including education, industry, economic development, community organizations, and workforce development agencies. The organization is unparalleled in the region, with deep industry connections, an expert understanding of the Innovation Economy, and ability to develop a workforce with the skills required to drive these new economies.
Finally, Keystone’s board of directors, their organizations and their respective commitments to the region’s prosperity, stand behind Keystone as the “backbone organization” for the effort. Never before has a confluence of national policy, record-breaking investment and regional strengths aligned so ideally. The region is ready to embrace this exceptional opportunity to ready its workforce– and to gain from the prosperity that stands to be created as a result.
LOOKING BACK TO LOOK AHEAD
It’s helpful to look to the region’s past for inspiration. In the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. recognized the need for one of the largest and most impactful infrastructure projects ever attempted: the U.S. Interstate System. At that time, two Presidents – one from Missouri and one from Kansas, rolled up their sleeves and got the job done. Truman signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, which authorized designation of a 40,000-mile National System of Interstate Highways, and Eisenhower saw it through when he signed the Federal Aid-Highway Act of 1956.
As a bi-state endeavor, Keystone is poised to be just as impactful for the infrastructure of the future.