As an election that revealed unprecedented levels of division in America fades into the background, the country faces the likelihood that the first two years of President-elect Joe Biden’s term will be defined by government as divided as the nation itself.
Contrary to pre-election predictions of a “Blue Wave,” Biden will instead take office with a narrow Democratic majority in the House and a Senate still too close to call. While this will limit the ability of the White House to pursue landmark legislation on progressive priorities, it won’t change the scale and scope of the crises facing the former vice president when he takes the oath of office later this month.
If politicians are looking to go beyond platitudes about working together and actually identify high-impact policy areas for compromise, investing in high-quality career and technical education programs should top the list. Even as the parties have grown further apart in recent years, support for CTE has provided a rare area of mutual agreement: The Perkins Act, the federal law funding CTE offerings, was reauthorized in Congress on a unanimous, bipartisan basis in 2018. And recent legislation combining COVID-19 stimulus and government funding for the rest of the year shows that while bipartisan deal-making in Congress may be on life support, it is not yet dead.
Newly announced Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona is a CTE believer, having used a 2019 commencement address to push higher education institutions to offer more options to “a lot of students sitting in our high schools today who need hands-on experiences, who want to build things, who want to develop things, who want to manufacture.” For the president-elect, support for CTE stems from a career advocating for the middle class, as well as his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who is a community college instructor and a passionate advocate for all higher education options. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has likewise touted the importance of investing in “vocational and career-focused development programs.”
CTE thus offers a rare win-win political issue, providing workers the training they need to get on the ladder to the middle class and stay there through career-long training, while providing businesses with a steady flow of skilled workers required to compete in the 21st century global economy.
In the short term, the priority for the new administration will be controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had devastating health and economic consequences for communities around the country. On the campaign trail, Biden regularly said he would “shut down the virus, not the economy.”
CTE will be integral to these efforts. Tackling the continued spread of COVID-19 without significant new economic lockdowns means ensuring the continued robustness of the health care system, with sufficient quantities of well-trained nurses, pharmacists, technicians and other professionals, while at the same time offering workers across sectors the training and resources they need to adapt to a turbulent job market.
In the long term, the president-elect faces major questions about how to get the workforce back to full speed in an economy that is likely to be forever altered by the ripple effects of COVID-19. From permanent shifts to remote work to a changing corporate landscape as a result of pandemic-induced business closures, the workforce of the future is likely to look very different, and work very differently, even once the virus is eradicated.
By offering short-term education and training programs with curricula designed to meet the needs of companies in specific fields, CTE is ideally suited to fill gaps in the workforce training system, helping Americans get back to work where they can and enabling them to quickly and affordably change career fields where they can’t.
To tackle both these short- and long-term challenges, the new administration should build on existing federal support for work-based learning and apprenticeships, broadly define traditional college alternatives, and urge Congress to “go big” on a 21st Century New Deal to invest in career training programs.
Policy changes to support Americans returning to work can range from increased funding for CTE programs to eliminating barriers that hold back high-quality, career-based offerings such as short-term Pell, to smoothing barriers that constrain coordination between the worlds of business and education. Secretary Cardona should partner with his fellow Cabinet members and continue the work of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board and the Pledge to America’s Workers to ensure those programs translate into not just supportive rhetoric but long-term policy action.
Finally, the administration must recognize something that skills advocates have long known: that all public investments — from climate to infrastructure — must include an accompanying workforce training component; otherwise, they will be doomed to fail by a shortage of the workers needed to successfully carry out the relevant initiatives.
Divided government in a divided nation will be difficult. But there are glimmers of hope that the two sides can come together to help America’s workers.
It will require significant compromise, with both sides swallowing pills that don’t always go down easy. But in making investments in career training and America’s workforce, there is something for Republicans and Democrats alike to champion.
Jeremy J. Wheaton is the president and chief executive officer of Minneapolis-based nonprofit ECMC Group, which helps students succeed by providing financial literacy tools and services, nonprofit career education and funding for innovative postsecondary programs.
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