The Skills Gap

Who will rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure?

By Harold Miller

Recently, the parents of a Chinese student paid a college counselor $6.5 million to get their child a spot at Stanford University. Meanwhile, a Harvard dean addressing his students during a commencement speech warned his listeners to “junk the myth of the self-made person.”

Apparently, there are many who think that just attending a prominent college or university will insure success. Without a doubt, higher education is desirable to enhance a qualified student’s chance to succeed. But in many cases, it will not guarantee success and in other circumstances, the student or their parents simply cannot afford going into debt for years to pay the high cost of a college education.

Beyond this, there is another factor that is being overlooked. Today, America’s economy is booming and unemployment is at an all-time low as available jobs outnumber seekers by a record gap.

There is little shortage of jobs for Silicon Valley technicians, teachers and professors, engineers or white-collar workers. However, what our country desperately needs are trained craftsman of all trades — electricians, plumbers, bricklayers, welders, steelworkers and building tradesmen.

After the recession that began in 2008, the real estate market collapsed and millions of workers, many of them tradesmen, were out of work. Local governments had no money with which to maintain our roads, bridges and buildings. Craftsmen and builders had to find work elsewhere. Consequently, when Congress gets around to acting on the multi-billion-dollar program to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, there will be very few trained workers available to do the projects.

Just think of it: 40% of all the bridges in our country are unsafe, and if you drive in any of our highways or byways, certainly you will encounter the potholes and broken pavement that exist in most cities. Beyond this, the U.S. General Services Administration that was formed 70 years ago is America’s largest property owner, manager and landlord.

GSA also had to cut back on building badly needed new buildings as well as repairing and rebuilding its existing properties.

Beginning of vo-tech

When I graduated from junior high school 70 years ago, our class was invited to attend a presentation by Edward Lang, principal of the newly created H.W. Smith Technical and Industrial High School. Hurlbut W. Smith, Syracuse industrialist and president and chairman of the board of L.C. Smith & Corona Typewriters, Inc., had created the first technical and industrial high school in Upstate New York. Smith Tech was much more than just another high school in that it offered highly specialized classes in mechanical and electrical engineering, plumbing and printing, including workshops for all trades. In addition to this were college-level classes in physics and languages.

For those of us who could not afford to go to college, there was a job waiting and indeed all the students who graduated from my class of 1951 got job offers before graduation. I was recruited by the engineering department of Solvay Process. Eventually, my career led to sales engineering and my own business.

Hurlbut Smith, visionary and civic leader, created 70 years ago what today is the Board of Cooperative Educational Services. There are 37 BOCES partnering with nearly all of New York state’s school districts to help meet students’ evolving educational needs through cost-effective and relevant training programs.

Attention 55 Plussers! If your child or grandchild, or in my case, great grandchild, shows interest in building things rather than sitting behind a desk, and should our politicians in Washington ever get off their derrières and approve the funding of rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure, there will be a job waiting for them.