Inviting Business To Higher Education Infrastructure Deliberations

Inviting Business To Higher Education Infrastructure Deliberations
SB 5684 would include greater business involvement in ranking proposed higher ed capital projects. Proponents argue it would better align public institution goals to that of Washington employers in high-demand fields. Photo: University of Washington

Washington’s workforce pipeline problem might finally get a boost. SB 5684 would increase business involvement in determining which public higher education projects deserve capital budget funding. Proponents from higher ed institutions and the construction sector argue the measure would allow for greater capacity in academic programs specializing in high-demand fields, to help fill worker shortages.

SB 5684 would establish the Higher Education Infrastructure Program to streamline capital budget project requests from public institutions to serve critical sectors. The program would be funded through private grants and state-matched dollars, and overseen by a board consisting of representatives of businesses in sectors including engineering, agriculture, aerospace and manufacturing. Prime sponsor is State Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1),  and co-sponsor is State Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-17).

The Senate Higher Education Committee on Tuesday, February 14 was scheduled to take executive action on the bill, but it has since been rescheduled to Thursday, February 16.

Higher Ed’s ‘Fixable Infrastructure Bottleneck

Palumbo is Ranking Minority Member of the committee. On Thursday, February 9, he told panel members, “We have a major disconnect between our workforce demands and what we are producing…whether it’s in aerospace, computer science, health care, maritime, aeronautics, advanced manufacturing, or life sciences, that we’ve got great opportunities but we’re not getting the kids into those” fields.

Palumbo added the state’s public institutions struggle with a “very fixable infrastructure bottleneck where they have to wait 14 years for a building in high-demand fields, which doesn’t make a lot of sense given the demands for our workforce.”

He added that the bill would be “a home run for everybody involved,” where:

  • Public Community and Technical Colleges (CTCs) and four-year institutions will get buildings built sooner.
  • Students will not get turned away due to lack of spots.
  • Employers would receive a “sped-up and supercharged version” of their workforce.
  • Taxpayers would receive a one-to-one public-private match on their investments.

Supporting the Rural Campuses 

Some concerns shared by committee member State Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-6) include whether or not the bill would help drive down costs related to labor rates and environmental permitting. The bill should also prevent unfair leveraging towards the larger institutions, he added.

Baumgartner told the committee he supports the use of matching funds in higher education because of the private sector’s return on investment. However, “if all the money is going into the University of Washington or the greater population centers…” they “will take those limited funds and, because of the matching, will get better resources,” and “we would have an even tougher problem getting money into the more rural campuses.”

Palumbo said the bill would prevent this, since the focus is primarily on meeting workforce needs, and not necessarily which institution is funded for a project.

Wayne Doty, Capital Budget Director for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, said, “The colleges and the state board have worked together over the many years to create a process to prioritize our system’s needs for state funding that’s relevant to” business and “local community needs and resources. Unfortunately, the state’s capital funding for the community and technical colleges has not recovered from the Great Recession…our prioritization process recognizes colleges’ abilities to raise matching funds in their communities.”

Doty added, “We appreciate the potential for higher education to receive more capital funding as proposed in the bill, but we are very concerned about the potential impact to the funding of all of our facilities.”

Construction Jobs, College Towns Would Benefit

Construction businesses and small college towns are likely to benefit under the bill because of the opportunities a capital budget project offers higher ed campuses and their encompassing towns or cities. That is according to Jerry Vanderwood, Chief Lobbyist for Associated General Contractors of Washington.

He told the committee, “There’s a big boom of construction in the Puget Sound area, but for a lot of communities a college building project could be the largest construction project in that  community for years. This would be one way to spread the wealth of construction around to communities like where Central, Eastern, and a lot of community colleges are located.”

Vanderwood added the bill would begin to address the construction sector’s workforce shortage, but he said would like to see the industry have a seat on the program’s board because its members are already involved on the higher ed institution campuses.

Representatives from Central Washington University (CWU), Western Washington University, and Eastern Washington University argued the bill would ensure major capital budget projects receive the funding needed to prepare students to serve critical industries upon graduation. Also important is expanding an institution’s capacity within those programs.

Steve DuPont, CWU’s Assistant Director of Government Relations told panel members the bill would spur degree production.

He told the committee, “Our top priority project is our health sciences building which serves the fields of food science, nutrition, clinical physiology, exercise science, paramedicine and public health. These majors are currently capped due to the fact that there is not enough space to allow for increased enrollment, and it’s been that way for the past four years.”

Also, CWU is asking for $9.9 million in capital budget funds to expand its aviation program to meet ever-increasing pilot demands.

DuPont added, “We have the only bachelor of science in aviation anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. Again, we cannot increase enrollments in those programs with the current facilities. As you may know, there is a pilot shortage going on already…this particular project is of critical” urgency.

Baumgartner added, “I think if we could incentivize capital funding going towards the best value in terms of the best cost buildings in the quickest amount of time with the best capital match…it would be a big departure in terms of how we currently do capital spending, but higher ed probably needs to look at a new model.”

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