WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took his national message local on Thursday as he addressed Mayors at a panel on innovation and workforce development at the United States Conference of Mayors.
Sanders, a former mayor himself of Burlington, Vermont, spoke mainly about issues relating to health care, childcare, education and job access, issues that will fall under his new chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Introducing Sanders was Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix, who set the tone by painting current economic conditions as an opportunity.
“We will be taking a look at the changing nature of work accelerated by the pandemic,” she said. “We’re facing an extremely tight job market right now which means we have a chance to innovate.”
After opening remarks about national challenges, Sanders then moved to issues facing local governments, in particular health care. In addition to a crisis of too many uninsured Americans, he used his own state’s anecdotes to describe the shortage of medical professionals.
“We don’t have enough nurses,” he said. “In my small city, Burlington, the local hospital is (using) traveling nurses because we don’t have enough local nurses.”
Sanders also lamented the lack of diversity in the health care workforce, an issue he says must be solved in addition to expanding the number of those in the profession. Only 5% of doctors are Black and 6% are Hispanic.
The senator also highlighted shortages in both the childcare and education sectors. He attributes them to low pay, noting that childcare workers make an average $13.31 hourly wage and that teacher pay is growing less than other college graduates’ pay adjusted for inflation.
How do you attract workers to these sectors? Sanders said it starts by uplifting them.
“We have to respect education,” he said. “Make education important. Treat teachers with respect. Pay them with higher salaries that they deserve.”
People also need greater opportunities to enter these sectors, of which Sanders said includes making college affordable. He thanked the Mayors who have already taken action to make community college free.
But Sanders also voiced a need to improve trade schools. Trades workers shortages are ones that he said are making it difficult to actually execute investments in economic development.
“One of the exciting things we have seen as a result of the infrastructure and jobs act and CHIPS act is, construction is really out recruiting,” Gallego said about Phoenix, a sign she thinks is hopeful for her community.
In addition to Sanders, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Alejandra Castillo gave an update on how recently passed federal legislation has been fueling regional growth across the country, showcasing the intersection between federal policy and local development.
But many of these funds, like the 2021 American Rescue Plan and 2022 CHIPS act, are one time investments, and Castillo said the EDA’s nearly $400 million budget isn’t enough to create true long-term growth. Making these investments consistent and permanent was a wish of both Sanders and Castillo.
“If we’re going to meet the opportunities of the future, it has to be long term,” she said. “I will continue to commit to you that as long as I am in this position, that is what I will continue to advocate for.”