Biden administration brass on Monday outlined the major roles that community colleges can play in huge infrastructure projects that are rolling out across the country thanks to federal legislation shepherded by the president.
In back-to-back speeches before community college presidents and trustees who were in Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of their institutions, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack and Zoë Baird, senior counselor for technology and economic growth to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, each detailed the potential that legislation such as the recently enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act have on growing jobs and the U.S. economy — and the important roles community colleges have in making that happen.
The senior agency officials noted that it’s not just about earning degrees to prepare the needed workforce, citing other ways to attain the required skills for jobs, such as apprenticeships, short-term training programs and earn-and-learn efforts.
“These are enormously important foundations for the economy ahead,” Baird told participants at the Community College National Legislative Summit, which is sponsored by the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) in collaboration with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
While each of the leaders clearly championed community colleges (Baird called out her alma mater, Shoreline Community College in Washington), it was Buttigieg’s shout-outs to a handful of two-year colleges — Northwestern Michigan Community College, Heartland Community College (Illinois), County College of Morris (New Jersey), Cuyahoga Community College (Ohio) and Lehigh Carbon Community College (Pennsylvania) — that drew extended applause. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana — home of the University of Notre Dame — gave a special mention to his home state’s community college system.
“Yes, let’s go Irish, but also let’s go Ivy Tech,” he said.
The government officials wove a common thread around the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, Inflation Reduction Act, CHIPS and Science Act and other legislation, noting that they will expand access to technology and develop jobs — many of those in new and emerging fields, such as electric vehicles. They talked about the need for more construction and utility workers, commercial drivers and drone technicians.
They also addressed how world events are altering industries. For example, Vilsack said the war in Ukraine has affected the production of fertilizers, which has prompted the U.S. to invest more in its own facilities — which means more jobs. Baird noted something similar: The U.S. wants to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to the U.S. because, in part, it is a national security issue.
While the officials talked about big projects and big goals, they also noted that they were keenly aware of the challenges many Americans face in accessing the education and training needed for those jobs. To that extent, the Biden team highlighted programs at their agencies that can support adult learners to overcome challenges such as food and housing insecurity and transportation.
For example, Vilsack noted WIC — a special supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children — is only used by half of the individuals who would qualify for it. He encouraged college leaders to share information about the program with their students.
Vilsack also cited the SNAP Employment and Training program, which helps SNAP participants gain skills and find work that moves them forward to self-sufficiency.
“The ability to have that SNAP payment may be the difference between whether they stay in school or not,” he said.
Buttigieg discussed not only rebuilding and expanding the nation’s transportation infrastructure but also expanding access to transportation locally, noting that getting to a college campus remains a challenge for many students. He encouraged college leaders to connect with state transportation officials and local transit agencies to discuss those challenges. It can be as simple as adding an extra stop on a current route or extending it, he said.
He added that in many cases, including such efforts can also help improve local agencies’ chances of securing infrastructure grants.