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Apprenticeships, technical education offer a path to a successful workforce – ‘college-only’ is a myth

Virginia Foxx

In making his impassioned speech on how our county’s economy can grow through tax reform, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said Tuesday, “We need to connect people with the skills they need to get good-paying, in-demand jobs.”

Speaker Ryan is absolutely right, and the House is immediately answering the Speaker’s call to action.

There is a myth about success as it relates to education in this country. Too many Americans have come to believe that the pathway to a successful career lies solely on a college campus, and in a baccalaureate degree.

For many Americans this is not the case, and not the best path they can take to find the skills needed to ultimately lead them to the overall goal of an education — a  good paying job and a successful life.

There is a myth about success as it relates to education in this country. Too many Americans have come to believe that the pathway to a successful career lies solely on a college campus.

An unfortunate truth is that America is still facing a recovering economy, and a widening skills gap that is putting our workforce at a disadvantage to succeed in a 21st century economy. While companies across the country have openings for high paying jobs, and are anxious to hire, many workers lack the skills and adequate education needed to qualify and compete for those jobs.

We must act soon.  Already we face a great shortage of workers with the skills to fill the current 6 million vacant jobs, and our economy is currently on track to face a shortage of 11 million workers who have the necessary credentials to satisfy the needs of the country by 2022.

Such a shortage in our workforce does not allow Americans to be on track to compete in a global marketplace. We have arrived at this shortage, in large part, because of the way we think about education and skills-focused education in this country.

The fact is, all workers need skills that lead to a vocation.  More than thirty years ago, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act took an important step in recognizing that baccalaureate programs did not necessarily equip people with the skills they needed to join the workforce. The Perkins Act and its resulting investment in skills-focused education has provided countless stories of success for students who have learned skills to find in-demand jobs, at a fraction of the cost of a baccalaureate degree.

These are students who find high-quality education and career development opportunities in their own communities, and are often recruited by companies in their own backyard who are in need of workers ready to play a role in a 21st century workforce.

Last week, President Trump took an historic step towards recognizing the power of apprenticeships and skills-focused education in building tomorrow’s economy. The president’s action builds on the work Republicans in Congress have already begun to strengthen our workforce and close the skills gap.

In 2014, the bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was enacted into law, and set in motion necessary reforms to improve the dialogue between local leaders and private businesses on how workforce education could better serve employers’ needs in communities across the country.

While WIOA opened the door to new opportunities, there’s still much work to be done. Educational institutions, private companies, and community leaders must play a role in the creation of workforce development programs, including apprenticeships that work best for the needs of their local communities.

Most importantly, all of these conversations can be had without the federal government dictating how these programs should be implemented.

Already, companies such as IBM, Boeing, AT&T, Walmart, and many others are working with their community career programs to educate our future workforce and provide students with the skills they will need to succeed in life.

A “Washington knows best” approach to creating successful skills-focused education programs is not the answer as communities plan and develop career and technical education programs tailored to their local economies.

The best thing the federal government can do is update our career and technical education laws to give community leaders and educators the tools and freedom they need to build programs that will open up more pathways for students and workers.

In doing so, we are also changing the way we think about education and vocations in this country.

This week, Congress will consider the bipartisan Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act to update our skills-focused and credentialing programs to meet the needs of a modern workforce.

Our state and local leaders in the public and private sectors are in the driver’s seat when it comes to workforce development, and Washington can watch and learn as their work closes the skills gap in our country.

All education truly is career education. When students, parents, employers, and government at every level understand that, we’ll be on the right track.

Congresswoman Virginia Foxx represents North Carolina's 5th congressional district and serves as chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.