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Increasingly severe weather across the country highlights the vulnerabilities at the center of our national infrastructure. In Texas — where the energy system failed those who depend on it — and elsewhere, our infrastructure is only as good as the technology that supports it.

Recent history reminds us that the only way we can build a stronger, more resilient society is by investing in meaningful workforce training and good-paying jobs in the rapidly growing information technology field.

Through 2029, growth in the IT sector is expected to rise 11 percent and add over half a million jobs to the U.S. economy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

After the year we’ve had, this is welcome news. However, one major obstacle blocking this potential progress is our nation’s persistent skills gap.

The U.S. has just under 9 million available STEM jobs; 70 percent of them in IT or computers. More than 500,000 jobs in this field remain unfilled. More and more employers are eager to hire potential candidates who already have hard skills in core IT areas, such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence and user-experience design, according to LinkedIn Learning.

All of this adds up to one unfortunate conclusion — our country’s skills gap isn’t just hurting our energy infrastructure. It’s hurting our global competitiveness, our businesses and our communities.

From major computer glitches causing frustration and heartache for American travelers, to bungled online scheduling systems for vaccinations, it’s clear we simply aren’t doing everything we need to do to provide the best workers to foster a thriving IT sector.

If we don’t start equipping people with the right skills, training and certifications they need to qualify for and fill IT jobs, we won’t have the ingenuity or capacity to move our country forward.

Related: How a decline in community college students is a big problem for the economy

Here are some ideas for what we need to do:

  • Strengthen investments in workforce training and establish public-private partnerships to support employment.
  • Build company-specific programs that focus on recruiting and/or customized training.
  • Effectively review employee data to identify hard-to-find candidates across geographic and demographic lines.
  • Encourage more companies to support local colleges and students through mentorship programs, internships and summer job opportunities.
  • Use more ed-tech platforms, such as Tallo, a popular online networking tool, to digitally introduce students to college and career possibilities.

Initiatives like these will help us boost skills-training efforts across the country and could help raise the profile of lesser-known, critical and in-demand jobs in the IT industry.

For example, at energy companies, data scientists help reduce costs, maximize investments and improve public safety. IT professionals help ensure that energy is being distributed in the most efficient ways possible. And software developers and engineers help streamline communications and manage multiple projects — keeping customers’ lights on and our economy humming.

These are just a few examples — from only one part of the economy — of the range of career opportunities the IT sector has to offer. It has long been clear that IT jobs aren’t just for Silicon Valley. The job market analytics company Burning Glass reports that nine out of ten tech jobs sit outside the technology sector and that, in the utility sector alone, 35 percent of job openings in 2019 were in IT.

We simply must do more to prepare the American workforce for these opportunities.

To do so, we must also commit to preparing more of our youngest learners to fill this gap.

The U.S. has just under 9 million available STEM jobs; 70 percent of them in IT or computers. But more than 500,000 jobs in this field remain unfilled.

By integrating career learning programs — many of which are online — into our public middle and high schools, we can help students explore a variety of career options, including those in the IT field.

The most effective career-learning programs pair core classes and coursework, like English, math and history, with applied learning projects and experiences, some of which are online and mirror the real-world working environment. Research indicates that this kind of learning opportunity has a lifelong impact: It can help reduce dropout rates, increase on-time graduation rates and help “students apply and extend classroom learning,” according to the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE).

Career learning has exciting opportunities for students interested in everything from retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency to designing systems to analyze weather patterns; it has something to offer students who plan to enroll in college classes right after graduation, those who want to pursue a career in the U.S. military and those with plans to enter the digital-first workforce right away.

As the beginning of this year has reminded us, software engineers, technicians, data scientists and countless others in the IT field work around the clock to keep us safe — particularly during this unprecedented time.

We need to ensure we’re continuing to expose more Americans to the jobs, opportunities and resources that will help modernize our country’s IT systems. Our shared future depends on it.

Kevin P. Chavous, a former District of Columbia City Council member, is an attorney, author, education reform activist and president of Academic Policy and External Affairs at Stride, Inc.

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