Filling in the Workforce Gap Through Infrastructure Academies

Organizations such as the DCIA are preparing workers for the infrastructure industry and combating a skilled labor shortage

By Dr. Unique Morris-Hughes

After a cycle of working and then experiencing unemployment, D.C. resident Darrin Williams turned to the D.C. Department of Employment Services for job development training that would lead to career stability. He applied and successfully completed an apprenticeship as a welder for the D.C. Department of Public Works, through our Learn Earn Advance Prosper (LEAP) program. Once the DC Infrastructure Academy (DCIA) opened, he became interested in training that would place him in the infrastructure industry, where the average wage is $50 an hour.

For Infrastructure Week, DCIA celebrated the opening of our utility training yard with our partner PEPCO/Exelon. Williams, who is now a full-time employee with PEPCO, expressed his gratitude for DCIA as the Academy prepared him for not just a job, but a career in the utility field, that allows him to support his family and enjoy life comfortably.

The District of Columbia is at the center of opportunity and on the corner of innovation. New advancements in technology, infrastructure, and sustainability have assisted in the way our city is preparing its workforce and creating a pipeline of talent. We are investing in education and training that is preparing our residents and communities for careers of the future and to secure jobs with family-sustaining wages.

Infrastructure academies are not new ideas as cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia and the state of Georgia have created facilities that serve as a launch pad for many job seekers. As 2.7 million infrastructure workers are expected to retire or leave their jobs over the next decade, the District of Columbia has set the bar even higher by creating the first infrastructure hub that touches across the industry.

One year ago, Mayor Muriel Bowser opened the DCIA three years ahead of the 2021 goal. At the time DCIA was created, the District was seeing 50 percent of infrastructure job openings going unfilled. The academy has become instrumental in fulfilling the high-demand for qualified professionals within the District of Columbia’s infrastructure industry.

Aligning with Mayor Bowser’s mission in creating a fair shot for Washingtonians to obtain economic prosperity through expanding job and workforce training opportunities, DCIA has seen more than 2,000 residents visit the academy since its opening. DCIA plays a critical role as nearly 70 percent of DCIA applicants are from communities that experience a high unemployment rate.The successful completion of DCIA programs for residents in these communities is crucial as more trainees are hired for full-time employment, assisting in driving the unemployment rate down in these communities.

As the infrastructure industry continues to experience rapid growth across the nation, in the District of Columbia, we know how important it is to have employees that are trained, skilled, and eager to contribute to making the District a more sustainable city.

We are already seeing the benefits of the Academy. Trainees who have completed our Solar Works DC program, an initiative in partnership with the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, obtain full-time employment after receiving 12 weeks of hands-on experience when it comes to solar panel installation. The benefit is two-fold as homeowners are seeing a reduction in their energy bill, by saving up to 90 percent.

Within the year we have continuously added training courses as we form new partnerships with fellow District government agencies and private companies. One of our partners from the beginning, Washington Gas, has expanded their programming to include a cohort that will train participants specifically for jobs with the utility company and their subcontractors.

Earlier this year, Mayor Bowser announced a partnership between DCIA and Ford and Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company, affording residents the opportunity to train for jobs in the autonomous vehicle industry.

Establishments such as infrastructure academies are helping to accelerate the efforts to fill in the workforce gap in the industry. For the District, DCIA is able to tap into our talented pool of eager job seekers who have completed training at the academy and connect them to government and private sector employers who keep the lights running, the roads smooth and our transportation system flowing. In other words, District residents are contributing to the operation of the city.

While we continue to expand on workforce training opportunities and career services offered at DCIA, we know how important it is to invest in our workforce as the larger goal of the academy is ensuring our residents are prepared to compete locally and globally for careers that lead to job and financial security.

Dr. Unique Morris-Hughes is the Director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services. To learn more, please visit does.dc.gov.

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