Landmark jobs act inspired by local connections
By DOUGLAS BURNS
Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna, the representative of one of the more economically muscular districts in the history of the nation, has introduced sweeping legislation — the 21st Century Jobs Package — aimed at bringing communities left out of digital and technical jobs and wealth growth, now concentrated in places like San Francisco and Austin, Texas, to rural swaths of the United States.
“What we have to do is figure out how we re-establish networks in a digital age so that the wealth generation of Silicon Valley is also in other parts of the country and that they are benefiting from it,” Khanna, a California Democrat, said in an interview with The Jefferson Herald. “This bill is one step in trying to do that.”
Among other things, the bill would incent companies to locate and hire employees in rural America; create a Federal Institute of Technology with about 30 locations (Khanna sees Iowa State University as ideal for one of these) spread across the country; and allocate $900 billion in R&D funding for emerging technologies like Advanced Manufacturing, Synthetic Biology, Artificial intelligence, Biotechnology and Cybersecurity.
“Part of it came from my conversations in Iowa and Jefferson,” Khanna said. “The goal is, how do we get a real commitment for technology jobs in rural America and in mid-sized communities, and in ways that are actually tailored to the local community?”
The push on biomanufacturing stems directly from a long lunch Khanna had months ago in rural Iowa with former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a two-term U.S. secretary of agriculture, who says uses for crops and farm production remnant materials for a limitless amount of products will create new revenue streams for farmers, and high-paying off-farm careers in rural America.
“That was from Secretary Vilsack,” said Khanna, widely mentioned as a potential presidential cabinet member. “That was entirely based on the conversation with him. He made me realize when you are looking at Iowa, yeah, it would be nice to have some software jobs, but you also get people the technology skills that are going to be the most relevant to the local economy, and biomanufacturing is one of them.”
Khanna played a central role in the development of Accenture’s computer-software branch, or Forge, in Jefferson, and has been active with a major scholarship development that’s bringing tens of thousands of dollars to Des Moines Area Community College in Carroll for computer languages programs for rural students.
“Then you are preparing a new generation for opportunities so they can stay in the community they grew up in and have these jobs, and you really are making that investment,” Khanna said.
Khanna sees linking rural America with big tech centers in more coastal or urban areas as repairing a culturally frayed nation, as people will be working together in Iowa and California to build wealth for both — not attacking each other on social media platforms from behind computer screens.
“When we had manufacturing, we were connected,” Khanna said. “In some sense, if manufacturing did well in Michigan or Ohio, it ended up boosting people who were linked to transportation hubs, people who were linked with coal and mining, people who were linked in any way with supply chains of these great manufacturers. That’s not the case right now with technology. If Google or Apple do well, it doesn’t necessarily translate into wealth generation across the country.”
Bottom line, for the purposes of competing in a global economy, and to create more cooperation and harmony within the United States, it’s not sustainable to have people outside of Silicon Valley just be consumers of technology.
“We need to diversify the economy so that people in places like Iowa are participating in the wealth generation of the digital economy, and that they are not just sending money away, but they are having money come in,” Khanna said. “We also have to capitalize on the talent. There is such incredible talent in a place like Iowa with great community colleges and great history and tradition of technology. It would be actually foolish of us not to cultivate that talent in competing with a billion people in China.”
The 21st Century Jobs Package also includes:
• Funding for better and more-widespread STEM instruction in public schools, specifically focused on Computer Science. Currently, only 19 states give high schoolers access to Computer Science (CS) courses. Under Khanna’s plan, CS will be a mandated component of any public-school curriculum for all K-12 students nationwide.
• STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) scholarships for students left behind. In 2016, 331,000 STEM bachelor’s degrees were conferred in the U.S. Nearly 218,000 went to white students, compared to only 57,000 for Black, Latinx and Indigenous graduates combined. For the Class of 2011, only 39,116 rural high school graduates completed STEM degrees within six years, compared with 128,051 non-rural high school graduates over that same time period. Khanna’s package will provide the funds to close that gap and bring more Americans into the technology revolution.
• Tax incentives for the federal government’s contractors to locate part of their workforce in rural and forgotten areas across America. Companies will be eligible to claim the tax credit by hiring a person who attended a FIT or received the rural/minority STEM scholarship. These types of incentives will encourage companies to hire American workers from historically underserved regions of the country.
“It incentivizes companies to hire locally in these rural communities if they want to get federal contracts,” Khanna said.
• $8 billion toward teacher training in STEM fields. Khanna’s plan lays out a pathway to train, certify and expand development programs for educators working in both local and higher education.