By Sen. Eric Lesser
How should we — here in Massachusetts, and across the U.S. — prepare for autonomous vehicles taking over our roads or for artificial intelligence replacing manufacturing jobs on a massive scale? We may want to look across the pond for some answers.
Last fall, the British government published an ‘industrial strategy’ to address these two major challenges and two others: advancing economic growth while curbing pollution, and meeting the needs of an aging population.
The strategy is more a call for proposals than a top-down list of recommendations for cities, towns, and businesses to follow. In a nationwide public-private partnership, Britain is inviting organizations and companies to submit designs for the streets of the future that would pave the way, so to speak, for autonomous vehicles to join its roads. The winner will see their blueprints built, serving as prototypes for the rest of the country.
Instead of fearing tectonic shifts in technology, the U.K. is embracing them as opportunities to position their workers and industries at the forefront of the future economy. Here in America, and specifically in Massachusetts, we could take a page out of Britain’s book.
Training workers for the jobs of the 21st century often makes a good sound bite, but there are already thousands of unfilled high-tech manufacturing jobs in Western Mass. alone.
That is why I have made high-tech job-training a focus of my work at the State House, including a bill to study vocational education across the Commonwealth and establish programs where access to that education is inadequate.
Fortunately, some local companies and schools have stepped in to fill the gap. Tech Foundry trains young people and adults in computer science, and Springfield Technical Community College has formed a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to host one of the premier laser manufacturing programs in the country.
Not only is Britain embracing high-tech development; it is localizing that development in places that have fallen behind. Investing in regional cities is one of the five foundations of the industrial strategy.
Through its Transforming Cities Fund, Britain is funding infrastructure projects — such as high-speed rail — that improve connectivity between cities for the express purpose of driving growth across the country. The construction of HS2, a major high-speed rail project, is expected to support 25,000 jobs.
Here in America, President Trump unveiled his long-promised infrastructure plan in February. But it was essentially a mirage. It claimed to create $1.5 trillion in repairs and upgrades, but actually invests only $200 billion — expecting the states to pick up the rest of the tab. States and major cities have been waiting for injections of federal funds that will help them push their shovel-ready projects across the finish line — projects like railroad upgrades, bridge and school repairs, and other improvements that put people to work and rebuild our forgotten cities and towns.
Meanwhile, places that have fallen behind are, in many ways, the core of Britain’s strategy itself. That strategy has served to focus attention on the challenges the world’s changing economy poses to cities and regions. We need a similar focus here.
In America, former manufacturing towns should be the focus of our redevelopment as well. One solution is giving incentives to those who choose to live there — and the companies that choose to employ them. In the state Senate, we introduced bills offering student-loan-repayment plans to young people who move to former industrial cities after college and to those who invest in high-tech businesses based in those cities.
We can — and should — look to other countries’ efforts at rebuilding industrial areas and maintaining a skilled and educated workforce. Britain is not alone in offering lessons. Germany has long had a vocational education and training system that turns high-school-aged students into apprentices ready to take manufacturing jobs right after graduation. This is one reason why Germany is able to maintain trade surpluses while other western economies have faltered: Each year, workers trained in the latest manufacturing techniques step in to fill the open jobs.
The U.K.’s industrial strategy offers a template for how to spur economic growth and prepare our workforce for the future. It also offers a warning: if we fail to develop our own strategy, we will all be left behind.
State Sen. Eric Lesser is co-chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Mass.