By Tom Still

MADISON – Viewed from afar these days, it might be easy to conclude that life in Washington, D.C., has become a reality show gone awry.

Cabinet-level nominees stepping down amid claims of wrongdoing; a president seemingly at war with the press and members of his own team; an intelligence community at odds with the source of its authority; and a bureaucratic “swamp” that refuses to be drained.

Not to be overlooked, however, are the real issues facing Congress, the White House and the nation as the hard work of governing marches on.

That’s why about representatives of 30 state-based technology groups – including the Wisconsin Technology Council – joined with industry leaders in Washington this month to trade ideas and to “talk tech” with members of the Senate and House of Representatives.

The agenda included advancing technologies and policies to better secure the internet from cyber-attacks; advancing tax and regulatory changes to spur the growth of America’s $1-trillion tech industry; building tech platforms to support adoption of “the internet of things;” releasing unlicensed wireless spectrum for rural broadband and Wi-Fi; ensuring that free trade remains a priority; keeping highly skilled immigrants in the United States; and building a skilled tech-based workforce from the nation’s grade schools on up.

Republicans hold a majority in the House but only a tie-breaker edge in the Senate, where it takes a 60-vote “super-majority” to pass most bills. That means the turmoil that so far clouds President Trump’s first 100 days must give way to rational discussions – dare we say, bipartisanship? – in order for work to get done.

Among those rare bipartisan issues is building the kind of tech-savvy workforce needed to expand the tech industry overall and to combat urgent challenges such as cybersecurity.

A leading proposal making the rounds on Capitol Hill is the “CHANCE in TECH Act,” a plan to address workforce issues found in Wisconsin and almost every other state. CHANCE in TECH is an acronym for Championing Apprenticeships for New Careers and Employees in Technology.

The proposal calls for a long-term adjustment in how students are trained for science, technology, engineering and math jobs – the so-called STEM professions – in an age when those skills are required for a growing number of careers.

It envisions a combination of apprenticeships, internships and work-based learning accelerators that would put more students on the track of learning skills and earning certificates valued by industry. It urges industry itself to step up with the necessary help, and calls for a combination of public and private funding to support the system.

“These skills aren’t necessarily acquired through a traditional four-year college track, but rather can start in K-12 education, continue into higher education and include industry recognized certifications,” read a bill summary from CompTIA, the nation’s leading tech association.

Experts who addressed the tech leaders during the Washington fly-in agreed the need for workforce training is most evident in cybersecurity, which one speaker described as “the new space race.”

At a Tech Council Innovation Network meeting Feb. 21 in Madison, Special Agent Byron Franz of the FBI underscored the urgency when he told about 100 listeners: “There are cyber missiles landing in Wisconsin every single day” as hackers, both foreign and domestic, try to steal trade secrets from companies.

Cyber-attacks are rampant in industry as well as within government institutions, as Franz and others explained, yet there are relatively few people trained for cybersecurity careers. Many of those jobs don’t require a four-year degree and years of experience, but certificates and hands-on training that can allow young people to get a foot in the door.

Because there’s a shortage of teachers at all levels, industry partnerships are needed to expose students to careers. Also needed is leadership from state governments to help fund such programs. Federal speakers in Washington also urged schools and universities to take part in federal training programs such as the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Training.

Uncertainty in Washington doesn’t mean emerging national problems such as workforce training and cybersecurity go away. It does reinforce the need, however, for cooperation across political, business and educational lines.