We must invest in our human infrastructure

Late last year, articles began popping up, linking the COVID-19 pandemic to the mass exodus of women from the labor force. Of course, correlation does not equal causation. Decades of underfunding in professions predominately performed by women, continued gender discrimination, and allowing pay inequity to thrive in the workplace are more likely the contributing factors than a once-in-a-generation pandemic. COVID-19 simply exacerbated existing issues. In my own personal sphere of Alaska-born and raised women, all but two of us have left our jobs, ending our upward career trajectories, to care for dependents.

With $3.2 billion in federal infrastructure money headed to state coffers, Alaska is poised to make significant and lasting investments in our physical structures and systems, but without recognition and investment in our human infrastructure, Alaska will fail to maximize the incoming federal dollars. To put it simply, we’ve got to get everybody who wants to work back to work, and we need better systems so that when more workplace-ready folks arrive, we’re able to get them on the job quickly.

This ultimately means we need to take a hard look at why folks left the labor force to begin with and what barriers exist in achieving full employment. Undeniably, the lack of affordable and accessible child care is one of the most significant factors. To best meet our state’s future infrastructure investment needs, we need affordable, high-quality, early education systems. We must support and build up our existing child care facilities and expand access to voluntary pre-kindergarten. Without affordable and available child care and a strong social safety net, parents will always be asked to choose between their career and their family. These choices inevitably lead to an undesired mass exit from the workforce for many women as our contributions to the labor force continue to be undervalued and underrecognized. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 3.5 million mothers have left the labor force nationwide, and a disproportionate number of those are women of color.

To ensure our working parents are able to be on the job, we must retain our educators, especially our educators of color. All students benefit from diversity in the classroom, but with more than 15% of the state identifying as American Indian/Alaska Native and almost 10% of Anchorage residents identifying as mixed race, it’s critical we have teachers who look like our students.

Most importantly, these last few years have put unprecedented stress on our state health care systems. Every state is in desperate need of medical professionals, but not every state has a world-renowned nursing school. Alaska has the existing infrastructure poised at the ready. Strategic investments in these systems will accelerate substantial growth in our own locally grown nursing workforce. It’s beyond time to fully fund and expand our medical education systems to improve all Alaskans’ health outcomes and lives.

Finally, it’s way past time to ensure Alaskans receive fair and equitable compensation. We’ve learned so much during this pandemic — from reports from teacher retention working groups to how family-friendly work policies can best serve our labor force. We know that providing paid family leave, flexible work schedules, affordable health care access and opportunities for a better work-life balance means more Alaskans are able to stay on the job and in the job. We owe it to ourselves to implement best practices going forward, guaranteeing every Alaskan who wants to work is making fair wages. Our state had an incredible pension program that not only served as a significant recruitment tool, but also ensured strong retention of our public employees. Without folks to plow the roads or social workers to serve our communities, we will continue to fail at realizing our state’s full potential.

We know what we need to do to build back a better Alaska and take advantage of the federal resources about to flood our state. Like never before, the opportunity is before us to move this great state forward for our next generation.

Löki Gale Tobin is a staffer in the Alaska State Legislature, a member of the Pride Foundation board of directors and a community activist.

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