Seven million jobs remain unfilled in the United States because employers can’t find Americans with the skills to do them. At the same time, almost 6 million Americans remain out of work, despite record-low unemployment. In his soon-to-be published book The Once and Future Worker, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Oren Cass points out that the bulk of educational spending at the K-12 level is based on the premise that all children can and should attend college. Yet, despite a massive investment in higher education and financial aid, fewer than half of young adults attain a four-year degree. It has never been the case that most teenagers aspire to go to a four-year college. Some children have no chance of succeeding at that level because the public education system has poorly prepared them. Others may not want to attend college because good job opportunities exist that don’t require four-year degrees.
Our national obsession with college obscures the economic demand for non-college skilled or trained labor. For example, commercial underwater welders can earn high salaries, as can crane operators in certain metropolitan areas. Plumbers, electricians, and carpenters can make much more than the typical liberal arts graduate. Coding pays well and doesn’t require a college degree. Real alternatives to college exist for high-school graduates, and these options shouldn’t be seen as second-class choices.
President Trump, who issued an executive order on the promotion of job training in July, can do more, with congressional help, to highlight alternatives to expensive four-year degrees. New legislation could allow students pursuing apprenticeships and workforce-training programs to tap 529 college-savings accounts—set up on their behalf—to help pay for tuition and related expenses for job-training programs. Pell grants—the needs-based, federal financial-aid program for students—should be modified to allow greater choice. Presently, Pell grants can be used to cover tuition at a college or career training school, but only for long-term courses of study. These grants should be applicable as well for non-credit, short-term apprenticeship and workforce-training programs, as Tamar Jacoby of Opportunity America has suggested. The president and Congress should also embrace policies that would give federal tax credits to individuals and corporations donating money to such programs—including business- and labor-designed certification programs that lead to job offers for students on completion.
Also needed: honest discussion about the unionized public education system’s failure to educate African-American and Latino children in inner-city schools (and economically disadvantaged white rural students, as well). What cultural factors cause some children to have difficulty climbing the economic ladder? “There are three rules,” observes Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. “Graduate from high school, get a job and work, and wait until you’re 21 and married before you have babies. If you follow these three rules, the probability that you will be in poverty in any given year is 2 percent. If you violate all three, the probability is over 75 percent.” Haskins continues: “If you violate all three rules, the probability that you’ll make it into the middle class is under 5 percent. If you follow them, the probability is better than 70 percent.”
No one has a quick fix for the United States’ workforce and educational deficiencies, but we need to take steps today to reorient schooling to value all jobs—not just those requiring college degrees.
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