Cortez Masto’s WORKER Act focuses on STEM, automation workforce growth |

Cortez Masto’s WORKER Act focuses on STEM, automation workforce growth

U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) says the WORKER Act would expand registered apprenticeship programs for workers in-demand tech and automation industries.
Courtesy photo

Read the bill

Go here to read full text of Senate Bill 3245 — the Working on Rewarding and Keeping Employees Resilient (WORKER) Act — and to follow its progress.

RENO, Nev. — For years, we’ve been warned: The robots are coming.

In 2020, some might argue the robots are here. Walk into a restaurant, order from a touchscreen. Call customer service, speak to a software program that sounds and responds like a human. Walk into a warehouse, watch robots moving and sorting boxes.

This is automation: the replacement of human workers with robots, artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies. According to a recent study from Kempler Industries, about 28% of all U.S. jobs — or roughly 41 million — are most susceptible to automation.

Zooming in on the Silver State, Nevada ranks No. 2 in the nation for potential job losses to automation, with more than 437,000 jobs lost, or 32.5% of the current workforce.

These projections come at a time when Nevada’s tech sector is surging. In 2019, tech businesses employed more than 65,000 workers and directly generated more than $7 billion in economic activity. In the Reno-Sparks area alone, tech companies have added more than 48,000 new jobs over the past five years.

With that rise in automation in mind, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) says she wants to make sure Nevada workers aren’t left behind in the state’s fast-growing and fast-changing economy. This is why the Nevada senator recently co-introduced, along with Sen. Doug Jones (D-Alabama), the Working on Rewarding and Keeping Employees Resilient (WORKER) Act.

“It really is to promote education and training, and expanding registered apprenticeship programs for workers in these in-demand industries,” Sen. Cortez Masto said in a mid-March phone interview with the NNBW. “These are jobs of the 21st century and if there are going to be displaced workers due to automation, then there are going to be new jobs for the future.

“We want to make sure that our kids who are currently getting educated now have the opportunity to learn about and gain a skill.”

To that end, Cortez Masto said the WORKER Act would help not only bring shop classes back to elementary and secondary schools, but the bill would bring “shop classes of the 21st century” to schools.

“I went through the public school system in Nevada,” she said. “We used to have shop classes, right? And, unfortunately, a lot of the shop classes that I grew up with, they don’t exist anymore. We need to bring them back.”

Specifically, Cortez Masto said modern shop classes would focus on STEM education — “from programming to engineering to automation” — and expand programs to teach hands-on skills in design and manufacturing.

STEM education key to Industry 4.0

To accomplish this, she said the legislation would amend the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act to allow funding for “maker education” and “makerspaces” and training for teachers.

“We want to show, particularly our kids, there are opportunities around the utilization of this new technology and there are new jobs with it,” she added.

Mike Kazmierski, president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN), agrees with the senator.

“STEAM education is the key to the needs of the 4th Industrial Revolution jobs,” Kazmierski said in an email to the NNBW in March. “If we want our kids to be competitive and qualified for the next generation of jobs we can not do enough to promote this education.

“Additionally, the high-wage technology companies we are working so hard to attract to the region will stop coming if we cannot provide the talented workforce they will need to succeed.”

To bolster the workforce pipeline, the WORKER Act would fold apprenticeship programs into the education system, allowing academic credit for apprenticeships, Cortez Masto said. Moreover, the act would boost the promotion of apprenticeship programs by the Department of Labor and increase the outreach to underrepresented populations.

Cortez Masto said the bill would create a training voucher program to support Nevadans who have already been displaced through automation but want to develop the skills necessary to work in tech-centric positions.

“I do recognize that when you have an older worker who may want to learn a new skill or trade, there has to be an opportunity to help them in that short period of time with transportation costs or childcare costs as they’re learning that new trade,” said Cortez Masto, noting the bill creates a stipend to cover such costs for dislocated workers. “That fiscal piece is something I’m working through right now in the legislation before it goes to appropriations. Right now, my goal is to get the authority passed through our committees here and get this act passed.

“And when it comes to the appropriations, I’ll work with the appropriators on the cost surrounding it.”

Funding and next steps

Lauren Wodarski, press secretary for Cortez Masto, said grants for engineering programs at K-12 schools are authorized in the amounts of $20 million for both 2021 and 2022 and $21 million for both 2023 and 2024, should the bill go through.

She added: “This number is a suggested maximum; the final funding number would subject to the appropriations process.”

In addition, Wodarski said other portions of the bill “utilize existing funding by expanding eligibility requirements for programs that have already been funded by Congress or contain additional authorizations.”

As of late March, Cortez Masto said the WORKER Act had not received any pushback from labor organizations or groups across the state. In fact, a press release announcing the bill included words of support from multiple unions.

“Nevada’s working families appreciate Senator Cortez Masto’s WORKER Act to help prepare workers of today and tomorrow,” Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for UNITE HERE’s Culinary Union, said in the press release. “Whether through her provisions to expand STEM education, promote registered apprenticeships, or opportunities for training, the Culinary Union supports this legislation and the Senator’s efforts to fight for workers in Nevada and throughout the country.”

In terms of where the bill is in the lawmaking process, the WORKER Act was introduced, read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on Jan. 28, 2020.