We’ve heard for years now that globalization and technology demand an ever better-trained labor force. It happens to be true, but to meet this challenge and to begin rebuilding its middle class, the United States must upgrade its vocational training. Labor Department statistics put the matter bluntly. Youth unemployment remains distressingly high, even while thousands of good-paying jobs have gone unfilled for lack of workers with the right skills.

To listen to the rhetoric coming from private industry, academic studies, and political leaders, the United States is poised to “train up” its workers to meet these demands. The Association of Manufacturers has repeatedly focused attention on the need for vocational training, even establishing a suggested curriculum for community colleges. Publications as ideologically diverse as The Nation and Forbes are on board. State and local governments have worked to foster partnerships between high schools and community colleges and businesses. President Obama has trumpeted his eagerness to improve vocational training, announcing in 2012 an $8 billion Community College Career Fund to train 2 million students for high-skilled vocational jobs. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have also called for more investment in this area.

For all this high-profile backing, however, Washington has been slow to direct money to the vocational-training effort. Though federal outlays on education have risen on average by 6 percent per year this century, the money doesn’t seem to have found its way into the vocational area. It’s difficult to ferret out the details through Treasury Department data, which lump vocational training in with spending on elementary and secondary schooling. Nonetheless, what can be measured suggests that vocational education isn’t a federal priority.

In 1990, more than 53 percent of the federal investment on education went to a combination of elementary, secondary, and vocational schooling. The Clinton-Bush years shifted the balance toward higher education. By 2008, only 38.5 percent of all federal education dollars went to elementary, secondary, and vocational schooling. The early Obama years slowed this trend somewhat, though not in a way that helped vocational training efforts. Obama’s 2009 stimulus package shifted monies back to elementary and secondary schools, in part to protect the jobs of public school teachers. The pro-college bias reasserted itself more recently, and higher education’s spending share has increased steadily. The 2017 budget approaches 2008’s relative high, allocating 57 percent of all such spending to higher education and leaving only 43 percent to be shared among primary, secondary, and vocational efforts.

None of this is to suggest that support for higher education is a bad idea. On the contrary, such investments should serve the nation and its economy well. But if we need better-trained workers to fill twenty-first-century jobs and rebuild the middle class, a more robust investment in vocational training is needed. Under the current budget structure, the only way that vocational training can make relative gains is at the expense of elementary and secondary education—hardly a way to cultivate a well-trained, literate workforce.

Washington’s bias against vocational training has four possible causes. The first is simple ignorance, though this seems unlikely, given the flood of rhetorical support. Second, vocational-training investment may fall victim to the current budget structure and the bureaucratic process that surrounds budgeting. Breaking this stranglehold would require political leadership. Third, our national politicians have been captured by the higher-education lobby, which dictates their funding priorities. Fourth, and least attractive, is that the country’s ruling elites already have plans for their sons and daughters, which almost invariably involve lots of higher education, not vocational training. Those priorities are reflected in their decision making.

The problem likely stems from a combination of causes two, three, and four. It wouldn’t be the first time that government has succumbed to habit, pressures from lobbyists, or the temptation to serve its own interests above the national interest. But a changing global economy won’t wait on our policymakers to get it right. America needs a strong political push to upgrade the skills of our workforce. If we’re serious about vocational training, it’s time for less talk and more action.

Photo by kali9/iStock


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