Workforce development is a hot issue on Capitol Hill. As Congress this spring continues to hold hearings to gauge workforce shortages in many industries, a common thread has appeared in the hearings: the role of apprenticeships and community colleges in preparing skilled workers.
Over the past several months, Senate and House committees have examined workforce development issues in general and challenges in specific industries, from broadband to aviation and aerospace. Last week, a subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee focused on the workforce needs of the electric vehicle (EV) industry. The shift to all-electric vehicles could create more than 150,000 U.S. jobs by 2030, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
At the May 20 Research and Technology Subcommittee field hearing in Pontiac, Michigan, workforce development specialists outlined to lawmakers the vast number of sectors connected to the growing EV industry, from carmakers and their suppliers, to semiconductor and battery manufacturers, to charging station maintenance and more.
Similar to many other industries, EV businesses are desperate for workers. It is especially crucial in the rapidly changing field, where employees are constantly learning new skills for new technology, according to the witnesses at the hearing. Car manufacturers are providing hands-on learning opportunities for new workers as well as upgrading the skills of incubent workers, said Benigno “Ben” Cruz, director of the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology at Macomb Community College (MCC) in Michigan.
Auto manufacturing students at the college can participate in a paid co-op, working at least once a week at a Stellantis manufacturing facility while attending classes at MCC the rest of the week, Cruz said. The college’s center also helps students to continue with their auto-related education. Students can pursue a bachelor’s degree in automotive and EV engineering technology or a bachelor of science degree in engineering through Wayne State University in Detroit, he said.
Cruz also noted the college’s STEM outreach programs for grades 5 through 12. They include hands-on building projects, demonstrations of wind power, electric solar cells battery electric-power cars, robotics and more, he said.
Front and center
Rep. Paul Tonko (D-New York) emphasized the value of community colleges to workforce development.
“I think these institutions are invaluable to the training of skilled technical workers for the growing clean energy sector,” he said, citing Hudson Valley Community College in his district for its training programs in clean energy and advanced manufacturing. He also noted the college’s commitment to expanding diversity in those workforce pipelines.
Several of the witnesses agreed about the importance of community colleges in diversifying the workforce. Regarding what barriers where preventing those efforts, panelists cited hurdles that are common to many college students, such as child care and transportation. They also noted that more needs to be done to expose underrepresented populations to these career options at a younger age so they can take the needed academics if they want to pursue those paths. Again, they observed that community colleges can help to promote awareness about such careers and programs.
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“We need to foster an inclusive culture to ensure students and workers from all backgrounds can contribute their talents,” said committee chair Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas). “We cannot race ahead in developing cutting-edge technologies without building the workforce critical to ensuring Americans will reap the benefits.”
The panelists also cited registered apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships as vehicles to introduce students to the sector. Pre-apprenticeships can be especially helpful to allow students to gauge if a career is for them, said Jennifer Mefford, national co-chair of the Electrical Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program, who observed an especially critical shortage in electricians.