Rep. Khanna now ready to roll out 21st Century Jobs Act in January

Congressman Ro Khanna has been laying the groundwork for a tech jobs bill for more than a year, including an appearance at the 2019 Web Summit in Portugal in November with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Khanna plans to introduce the bill in January, he said in an interview with FierceElectronics. (YouTube)

U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., will introduce ambitious legislation in January to create tech hubs in middle America and minority communities based on government support of technology educational institutes, he said in an interview on Wednesday.

Called the 21st Century Jobs Act, the second-term Silicon Valley congressman described the multibillion-dollar proposal as a modern-day version of U.S. government land grants in the 1800s that fueled the industrial revolution.

“The 21st Century Jobs Act will roll out in January…We have to train and employ a whole generation like a Morill Act for the 21st century,” Khanna told FierceElectronics in a telephone interview.

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The Morill Act, passed by Congress in 1862 and signed into law by President Lincoln, allowed new western states to establish land-grant colleges that were largely focused on agriculture and jobs related to emerging technologies of the time.

Khanna is not running for U.S. president in 2020, but his tech jobs proposal rings of jobs and education themes raised by several Democrats running for high office next November. However, the congressman has been talking about the idea for much of his legislative career.

Khanna spent part of his first and current terms traveling to economically distressed cities in seven states and speaking about the disparities of U.S. cities and rural areas there that don’t attract nearly the tech innovation jobs as do San Francisco and a handful of other cities such as San Jose, San Diego, Seattle and Boston. 

RELATED: Just five U.S. cities have 90% of the growth in tech jobs, new study finds

Khanna first described his land grant concept more than a year ago in a broad outline including in an interview with The Guardian, saying then that he would introduce the Jobs Act in early 2019. In November, he appeared onstage at the 2019 Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, along with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to describe how “innovation and wealth has been concentrated in a few areas.”

Working with MIT economists

Now that a year has passed without the bill’s introduction, Khanna has worked for the past 12 months with MIT economists Simon Johnson and Jonathan Gruber to create “a comprehensive bill that is the gold standard for jobs to jumpstart America,” he said. “Their work has a lot to recommend it…[including] investments in schooling and hiring credits.” 

The two MIT economists authored a book, “Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream,” released in April.

The book argues in favor of more public investment in science to bolster the U.S. economy for all, partly by helping cities and population areas that have not attracted private technology investment. A key point the authors make is that U.S. public investment in research and development has dropped to less than half of the 2% of GDP level reached in 1964.

The authors have identified 102 places (primarily cities) for jump-starting America, posting an interactive map online and allowing users to comment on a forum.

The professors ranked the 102 places based on their numbers of college graduates, home prices, crime rates, commuting times and even the number of patents granted per thousand workers in each location. Rochester, New York, was ranked number 1, with an average house price of $170,000 and 34% of adults with a college degree as well as 1,808 patents per 1000 workers. Pittsburgh was ranked second, and the area of Syracuse/Utica-Rome, New York, ranked third.

Win-win for tech centers and heartland

Putting a public focus on boosting tech jobs in the heartland will be a “win-win” for the big tech cities as well as the rest of the nation, Khanna said. San Francisco and other popular high-tech hubs face high costs for housing and problems with homelessness while they grapple with traffic and scarce resources.

“I’m proud of having tech in my district and that innovation,” he said. “We have an ecosystem of risk-taking and culture with major universities and hundreds of companies sharing ideas and…rewarding risk. We will continue to be the innovative capital of the world. Every job doesn’t have to be concentrated in the Valley. There are several advantages to distributing job opportunities including helping housing and the challenges of homelessness. Google can afford to pay $300,000 for a young engineer but others can’t. We need to help companies that can’t afford those salaries.”

In the Valley, the average tenure for a worker in a tech job is 15 months, he said. He believes his jobs bill would help retention.

The MIT economists and Khanna argue that boosting the technology talent pool will also help the U.S. compete with China. That Chinese government puts a greater focus on creating technology-related job skills and making technology investments than the U.S.

“We have the most talented, hard-working people in the world, but we can’t waste our talent,” Khanna said. While he would not divulge the details of the bill or its costs and congressional supporters, Khanna did reveal that the bill “is focused on getting employable skills, not necessarily a four-year degree but a credential…Computer science should be required in schools, just like math and reading.”

He added: “We need a new work force…to address the fundamental geographical inequality of opportunity. We’ve seen progress and wealth, but many of the working class in many places in the heartland and in minority communities are left out. The future is accessible to communities if we show the opportunity of technology. It’s the challenge of our time.”

Khanna compared the jobs concept to Medicare-for-all proposals made by several presidential candidates. “The 21st Century Jobs Act will be the gold standard for how to get jobs in minority communities and the heartland,” he said.