By Tom Still

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Mr. Trump’s Washington can be a confusing place.

The same president who vowed to “drain the swamp” is himself mired in the muck of investigations, palace intrigue, questions about his past and congressional relations that range from guarded to openly skeptical.

And yet, all roads must still pass through the White House when it comes to forging solutions surrounding issues such as immigration, trade, federal spending, foreign relations and much more.

For now, however, those roads are blockaded on the Capitol end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where Republicans and Democrats alike are trying to move beyond the mood of perpetual disorder and find answers that won’t be rejected out of hand by the Oval Office.

That picture emerged during a mid-February visit to Washington, where a leading technology trade association gathered members from across the country – including the Wisconsin Technology Council – to hear about industry and legislative trends and to meet with lawmakers on both sides of the partisan aisle.

Topics included recruiting and training skilled workers in information technology, immigration reform, uses for blockchain technology, data security, broadband penetration, privacy issues and trade, especially around the North America Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.-China information and trade communications policy.

Workforce training and apprenticeship was at the top of the list, but even with an issue that should enjoy bipartisan support, tech leaders warned that nothing is certain when it comes to progress on Capitol Hill.

Elizabeth Hyman, executive vice president of public policy for CompTIA, said a “hyper-partisan atmosphere coupled with significant uncertainty about the policy-making process” can make even consensus bills hard to pass.

She also acknowledged that “public exuberance for technology has become a little less bright” as the industry has matured and challenges has cropped up over privacy, data security and the market dominance of some of the world’s largest tech companies.

Nonetheless, the tech industry has seen progress on some policy fronts. The Office of American Innovation in the White House was viewed as a step in the right direction, and the Executive Order on Cybersecurity will continue the work of the past two administrations. The order emphasized a risk-based approach to IT security, directed federal agencies to deploy a framework recommended by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, and promoted the Modernizing Government Technology Act. That was signed into law in late 2017.

A bipartisan bill that shows promise for states such as Wisconsin, which needs more workers of all descriptions and especially those with tech skills, in the CHANCE in Tech Act. That’s an acronym for Championing Apprenticeships for New Careers and Employees in Technology (S. 1518 and H.R. 3174).

The bill is a recognition that tech apprenticeships in the United States are largely a patchwork of programs that don’t always result in certificates that are “portable” from one workplace to another. It would instruct the U.S. Department of Labor to award contracts to industry intermediaries to develop apprenticeships in tech; define how those intermediaries – such as tech colleges and industry groups – would work with business; and make apprenticeships available to high school students, early college science and tech students and post-secondary students.

It also acknowledges that many IT professions don’t require a four-year college degree and jobs can be filled with a skilled workforce that has other certified training.

“We all think apprenticeship is a good idea, but there are few people out there actually brokering apprenticeships,” said Brent Parton, deputy director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America. “There’s a view that employers will just fund apprenticeships on their own, but small- and mid-sized companies don’t often have the bandwidth to get it done… It just won’t get done magically.”

My own Capitol Hill visits revealed bipartisan support for the bill, but there was also doubts about how much can get done this year on any topic – barring a break in the logjam. As one lawmaker said, “it’s time to stop shouting past one another and make some progress.”

Progress can sometimes begin with small bipartisan victories. Perhaps building a more skilled workforce is one such milestone.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.