From the smartphone in our hands to the flat-screen TVs on our walls—and the Internet that now runs between them—we have a level of technological wizardry that would make Harry Potter envious. We all know that behind these gadgets and platforms is an amazing level of skill and knowledge: in the concepts that led to them, in the designs that take concept to reality and in the manufacturing that creates them. 

Outside our homes is a built environment of roads, train lines, bridges, water, power and fiber-optic lines that also requires skills to conceive, design, build and maintain. For whatever reason, though, we don’t often think about those types of skills. But we should. Because unlike smartphones or even trains, it’s hard to import that know-how from China or elsewhere. It’s crucial that we maintain those important skills at home.

For some time there have been signs that the overall quality and skill of our workforce is declining, and with it the quality of our infrastructure. In fact, the issue comes up a lot. At a recent symposium on high-speed rail that I organized at the US-Asia Institute in Washington, D.C., professor Tschangho John Kim of the University of Illinois said that the rail sector as a whole suffered from a lack of skilled workers. There are few training programs to educate workers from the front lines to upper management. Kim even noted that his university’s “RailTEC,” one of the oldest research and training centers in the country, was now perhaps the only university center dedicated to rail.

And it’s not just rail. The number of potholes and cracks in an average street or sidewalk is much higher in the U.S. than in other rich nations. As I have said in previous columns, some of this relates to our fragmented political economy. When you have a private phone company, a cable company, a public water company and street departments all digging up and repairing the same street, coordination is difficult. Cracks and holes in the street are just one result of the challenge. But the skill of workers also is important.

Western Europe has for decades been building light, airy bridges that seem almost to levitate across a span. I’m not just talking about splashy mega projects such as the Millau Viaduct in France; I’m talking about simple city bridges. Here in the U.S., we often just pour out big bases of concrete on each bank, and slap some steel girders between them. It’s not subtle.

“The skills of the designers and workers are certainly part of the equation,” says Kenneth Kruckemeyer, a former instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a self-titled transportation strategist. “For example, we throw material at a problem by using girders of constant thickness for the entire length of the beam—where a variable thickness or more complicated design would place the material only where needed through skilled design and careful workmanship.”

The need for skilled laborers is a tough subject in the era of No Child Left Behind. But there are many good jobs waiting to be developed that rely on high skills that aren’t learned as much in a standard classroom. Maybe a savvy city or state would zig while its brethren zag, and invest in serious worker training centers, what used to be called vocational education.

A decade ago I interviewed David Gunn, then head of Amtrak. Gunn is a railroad man’s railroad man, and had won fame for turning around New York City transit and then the London Underground. He said this country wasn’t ready for high-speed rail because we didn’t have the workers to build or maintain it. His words still read fresh:

“It is not helpful, in my opinion, to engage in these flights of fancy where you’re going to build TGVs [France’s high-speed rail system] all over the United States. We do not have the technical capabilities for doing it, we don’t have the manufacturing to support it anymore and you don’t have the people to run it. [France has] been working on their train system since the war. For 60 years, they’ve been incrementally creeping up speeds on electrification, on catenary design, or locomotive design. In the United States, which was the leader at the end of World War II, you can’t even buy a coupler that is made in the United States. You can’t just take this super sophisticated technology from over there, and bring it here and make it work. Because, I mean, you have to have people who actually have a toolbox and can stand there and make it work. This is what the big thinkers—planners and other people—often don’t get. This is not a detail. It is a critical component of having a good operation.”

Or maybe we don’t need skilled workers anymore. China famously built the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge span that opened last year. Americans assembled and installed it. Is this the way of the future? Can we import workers for standard maintenance as well? China and South Korea are examples of countries that in a generation or two have leapt from third-world standards, with little advanced infrastructure, to being well ahead of this country in several sectors. (Korea has a national high-speed rail system, ubiquitous high-speed broadband service and clean, quiet subways.)

Can we leap as well, or must we, as Gunn says, walk before we run? Whatever the exact stages, we will need skilled labor and management, and the production of both should be a national priority.