Look at the job market today, and you’ll see this continuing paradox: there are lots of people who have been out of work for a long time, and lots of employers who say they have good jobs to fill (but can’t) that don’t require a college degree.
Most recently, I read that contractors seeking to clean up the damage from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were delayed because they couldn’t find workers to help in the cleanup effort.
The first instinct on the left is to have the federal government Do Something whenever there’s a problem. So the Democrats, in their “Better Deal” proposal in July, promised to double the federal budget for apprenticeships. Sen. Bernie Sanders, on his own, calls for an additional $5.5 billion in federal job training programs. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail last year, said he liked vocational education and “would start it up big league” if he became president.
Andy Smarick, an American Enterprise Institute fellow thinks that all this additional education spending is misguided. In this Weekly Standard piece, he looks at how the federal government has funded vocational education and why much of the money it spent has been wasted.
Of course, the federal government spends a lot of money on job training already. A 2011 audit from the Government Accountability Office found that nine federal agencies were administering 47 training programs.
But is Washington the best judge of what employers in Kansas City or Phoenix need?
Rachael Stephens of the National Governors Association reports that different regions of the country have different needs. Connecticut had a shortage of carpenters. Utah needed masons and electricians.
And Burning Glass Technologies, which analyzes job data, finds that employers increasingly want people who are good with a wide range of skills rather than just one or two specialties.
The states are also busily innovating, coming up with new ways to train people for “middle skills” jobs that need more than a high school diploma and less than a college degree.
Some states, such as California, are creating “career-and-technical education” or CTE high schools, such as High Tech High in San Diego.
For-profit providers—Coursera, Strayer University, General Assembly—are working with employers to custom-tailor courses for employers.
Purdue University is in the process of acquiring Kaplan University as a way of making inroads into this growing market. In July, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, collaborating with JPMorgan Chase, reported that there are 30 million jobs in America, with an average salary of $55,000, that require some post high-school training but don’t require a college degree.
“Decentralization,” Smarick writes, “can equally help empower individuals.” The tax code could be changed to reward employers who help subsidize continuing education for their staff. In addition, federal subsidies for higher education could be adjusted so that the funds could be used for coding camps or local enterprises that teach people valuable skills.
What would be a bad idea, says Smarick, is some sort of new national program for apprenticeships, even though President Trump declared in June that “apprenticeships are going to be a big, big factor in our country.”
But a recent paper in the Journal of Human Resources by a research team led by Hoover Institution fellow Eric A. Hanushek looked at 11 countries where apprenticeships are common, including countries such as Germany and Austria that have long relied on apprenticeships as a cornerstone of vocational education.
Hanushek and his colleagues found that while apprenticeships eased entry into the labor force, the workers who were apprentices tended to retire earlier because they didn’t keep their skills current. This makes sense: think of workers today who are in their sixties and who began their careers around 1980. Would the skills they learned in the previous century be valid now?
What can donors do to encourage people to succeed in the blue-collar trades?
One nonprofit in this area is the confusedly-named mikeroweWORKS Foundation, created by Mike Rowe, best known as the host of the excellent Discovery Channel series “Dirty Jobs.” Rowe’s nonprofit, which has a budget of just under a million, helps promote the idea of blue-collar work and also awards scholarships for people interested in pursuing a blue-collar career.
In my view, donors for vocational education ought to keep their programs local and ask local employers and schools what sort of help they need. It may well be, for example, that schools could use high-tech equipment that could be donated. Teachers in vocational education classes might also have their own ideas about the best use of grant money. It’s much better to give equipment to schools than money, because the number of cases of public school systems leaching away money is legion.
Finally, donors should be wary of vocational education programs where they are asked to be junior partners to Washington. Supporting local initiatives to increase blue-collar work is a good idea; supporting national initiatives to expand the Labor or Education Departments is a bad one.
 The American Enterprise Institute has been a client of mine since 1990. Most recently, in 2016, and in 2017 I provided education research to AEI under contract. I do not currently have any active contracts.