The United States is wrestling with an economic conundrum as there are far too many jobs available without people to fill them.

Several industry sectors have more unfilled jobs today than at any other time since the post-World War II era, leaving some businesses without the capacity to grow and thrive. This labor or “workforce” shortage is unevenly distributed with some states experiencing more extreme worker shortages than others.

So the question is: What can Congress and state governments do to address the issue?

To be clear, there are sectors of the economy with a surfeit of workers. However, in manufacturing, there are more unfilled job openings than unemployed workers with experience. This translates to less productivity.

How did industry find itself in this predicament? During the early part of the 21st century, industrial productivity already showed lackluster productive growth. Then the COVID-19 pandemic intensified the decline when businesses were shuttered and workers were forced to stay at home, causing them to fall behind in gaining the necessary skills for jobs of the future.

To get the U.S. economic engine humming, one solution is to empower workers with the necessary competencies to fill open jobs. This process requires investment, time and, most importantly, a different approach to worker education, one that focuses on developing worker skills rather than credentials and degrees.

Deploying this approach would help U.S. employers expand their talent pools by sourcing non-traditional workers, retain strong workers and build and sustain a more inclusive workforce.

NPCA and its member companies have adopted such an approach by eliminating degree or credential requirements and by reaching out to high schools, community colleges, universities and veterans organizations to offer company-based training during onboarding. The NPCA Foundation funds grants at five U.S. universities to develop course curriculum to educate students in precast concrete manufacturing in addition to scholarships and internships to cultivate candidates who can advance in this industry and enjoy long-term employment.

The government’s role

The federal government also has tools to help the manufacturing industry sector gain a better pool of workers by:

  • Pivoting away from only focusing on vocational training and apprenticeships.
  • Incentivizing skills-based programs for students.
  • Increasing the number of H1B Visas, which currently are capped at 80,000 nationwide.
  • Modifying the H1B Visa program to enable visas that aren’t being used in one sector to be used by another.
  • Providing immigration reform to attract new workers.
  • Promoting second-chance hiring.

Enacting policies that incentivize work by expanding access to affordable childcare.

Policies already in place that require reauthorization and other ideas to advance these issues include:

Enhanced funding for career and technical education through a reauthorization of the Perkins Act, the primary federal funding source for high school, college and university grant programs that prepare teens, adults and immigrants for jobs. Congress passed the latest version of the Perkins Act in July 2018.

Improved workforce recruitment and retention through a reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which is the primary federal legislation to bring about increased coordination among federal workforce development and related programs.

  • Exploring options for developing a comprehensive system with innovative, customized approaches to recruit employees, including military personnel before their discharge from active service.
  • Incentivizing career and technical education in lieu of “college for all” in future workforce legislation.
  • Deploying a federal database to serve as a “matchmaking” website for hiring companies and job seekers.

Decent congressional meetings between NPCA and federal legislators (more on Page 66) demonstrate the need to establish effective and ongoing programs to develop and maintain a relationship with Congress and state legislatures to communicate constituent needs.

Government can be a resource, but policymakers need input. Building a constituent relationship through a continuous government affairs effort is meaningful and can elicit results that benefit NPCA members in the long run.

Barbara Burchett is co-principal of Innovative Advocacy, which works with NPCA to advance the interests of the precast concrete industry in Washington, D.C.