Washington Talks About Vocational Training But Does Little

Globalization and technology relentlessly demand an ever better-trained labor force.  To meet the challenges of this future and to rebuild its middle class, America, it is clear, must upgrade its vocational training.  Labor Department statistics put the matter bluntly.  Youth unemployment remains unconscionably high, while thousands of good-paying jobs have gone begging for lack of workers with the right skills.  Industry and scholars both have called attention to the need, as has President Obama and others in government.  Yet, for all the clear facts, the papers issued, and rhetorical flourishes delivered, few new dollars have gone into the effort, especially where Washington is concerned.

A scan of media stories during the past few years could make people believe that the country is hot to train up its workers.  Both candidates in the present election have endorsed the effort and called for more.  The Association of Manufacturers has repeatedly called attention to the need for vocational training.  It has gone so far as to set a suggested curriculum for community colleges.  Both sides of the political-economic spectrum support the effort.  Publications as diverse as The Nation and Forbes have advocated greater efforts to upgrade the labor force’s skill set.  State and local governments, albeit with limited overall resources, have pushed the matter as well, trying to partner high schools and community colleges with businesses.

President Obama on several occasions has trumpeted his determination to improve vocational training.  It featured large in descriptions of his 2009 stimulus program to relieve the strain of the great recession.  Even as the country began haltingly to recover, he re-emphasized the need.  His 2012 State of the Union Address highlighted the benefits of cooperation between community colleges and business.  He went so far on that occasion to call out a student who had benefitted from a successful program set up by North Carolina’s Central Piedmont Community College and the Siemens Corporation.  He proposed $1 billion to foster such partnerships.  Later that year he announced a different, $8 billion “Community College Career Fund” to train, he said, 2 million for high-skilled jobs.  In 2015, his Labor Department initiated another such program, this time with $175 million for “American Apprentice Grants.”

For all this high profile support, however, Washington seems to have spent its monies in other ways.  Though outlays on education overall have risen a robust 6.0 percent a year so far in this century, remarkably faster under Bush (9.4 percent a year) than under Obama (5.4 percent), the money does not seem to have found its way into the vocational area.  To be sure, Treasury practice makes it difficult to ferret out such detail.  Because the data lump vocational training in with spending on elementary and secondary schooling, they obscure the fate of the various programs announced during the past few years and make it difficult to calculate specifics on vocational spending alone.  Nonetheless, what trends are available illuminate and are far from encouraging.

In 1990, more than 53 percent of the monies spent by the federal government on education went to a combination of elementary, secondary, and vocational training.  The Clinton-Bush years shifted the balance toward higher education so that by 2008 only 38.5 percent of all federal education dollars went to elementary, secondary, and vocational schooling.  The early years of the Obama administration seemed to correct this.  The 2009 stimulus, because it strived to protect the jobs of public school teachers, shifted monies back toward elementary and secondary schools, though that hardly helped vocational training efforts.  Since, the older pro-college bias has reasserted itself.  Higher education’s share has increased steadily during the intervening years so that the 2017 budget has re-approached 2008’s relative high, allocating 57 percent of all such spending to higher education and leaving only 43 percent to be shared between primary, secondary, and vocational.

None of this is to suggest that support for higher education is a bad idea.  On the contrary, it should serve the nation and its economy well.  But if, as the administration says, the nation needs better-trained workers to fill 21st century jobs and rebuild the middle class, it would seem that a greater proportion of these monies should have gone in the vocational direction.  As it is, the only way vocational training could have made relative gains in these budgets was at the expense of elementary and secondary education, hardly a way to cultivate a well-trained literate workforce.

Only four possible things can explain Washington’s continued bias.  First, it is simply ignorant of the need.  That hardly seems likely given the flood of rhetorical support it has given vocational training and the enthusiasm shown for it is other quarters.  Second, a budgeting momentum has built itself into bureaucratic processes.  If that has occurred, then the political authorities have exhibited a reprehensible lack of the will and leadership.  Third, the lobbying skills of colleges and universities are simply too much for those in charge, hardly flattering to the authorities.  Fourth, and least attractive as an explanation, is that both the country’s political leadership and permanent government know where their sons and daughters are going and would prefer to serve them instead of recognized national needs.

In all probability, it is a combination of explanations two, three, and four.  No one wants to believe such things of those in power, but it would not be the first time government has succumbed to habit, pressures from powerful players outride the beltway, or the temptation to serve its own interests above those of the nation generally.  Whatever the mix, the nation now can only hope for strong, purposeful political leadership that can reinforce the efforts of others who would upgrade the skills of this country’s workforce, to serve future needs and to re-build a middle class.


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