Morici: Merging education and labor departments makes sense

Peter Morici

U.S. President Donald Trump wants to merge the Departments of Labor and Education. That makes a lot of sense seen alongside his emphasis on apprenticeships to better equip young people with the skills needed to land good paying jobs.

Too many manufacturing, construction and service businesses cannot find the technical workers they need to expand, because the whole emphasis at most high schools is on a general education to prepare students for college. Too scarce are the programs that teach practical skills, coupled with on-site work experience, that permit students to jump into decent paying positions on graduation.

Part of the problem is the explosion of specialized skill requirements created by automation, computers, artificial intelligence and the rapidly growing service economy that are beyond the scope of what most high schools and school systems can provide without outside help.

Apprenticeship programs created by businesses, industry associations and unions–and championed by Trump–could help high schools address this resource challenge and better balance the mix of college bound and vocationally trained graduates.

Currently, nearly 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in two or four year colleges. Many are not adequately prepared for or inclined by temperament to significantly profit from the kind of abstract thinking required in an undergraduate curriculum, drop out or graduate without the critical thinking skills needed for entry-level professional or managerial work and end up serving coffee at Starbucks or in similar semi-skilled employment.

Parents and students should not be blamed, because employers give preference to college graduates in hiring for many jobs that hardly require the esoteric stuff we do at universities–for example, insurance adjusters, cellphone sales people, makeup artists and the like. Diplomas are used as evidence applicants can follow instructions, navigate a bureaucracy and show up every day.

Many college graduates land in low-paying dead-end jobs and are saddled with a lifetime of debt when more practical alternatives are available. Folks with college degrees earn nearly double what those who go to work after high school but that is an average, which includes engineers, accountants and the like. Many college graduates land in low-paying dead-end jobs and are saddled with a lifetime of debt when more practical alternatives are available.

The Department of Labor (DOL) certifies apprenticeship programs. Usually completed in well under four years, these generally offer about $15 an hour while students take courses and get hands-on experience. On completion, 87 percent of students are in positions that pay an average of $60,000 a year–for college graduates the average is about $50,000 and subtracting the above-mentioned skills-based majors, the college average is a lot less.

About two-thirds of apprenticeships are in construction and manufacturing but President Trump sees great opportunity in the service sector and has doubled the DOL budget for cultivating apprenticeships. Private actors like Wells Fargo, professional services firm Aon PLC and the National Restaurant Association are building out programs.

In the tech sector, Course Report connects students to some 95 coding schools which annually matriculate about 23,000 graduates through programs that last about 14 weeks, cost about $11,000 and place graduates in jobs with starting salaries averaging nearly $71,000.

Through the online portal Coursera, Google offers an 8 to 12 month IT Support Professional Certificate program that connects graduates with employers like Bank of America, Walmart and GE Digital. More formalized schools are emerging like Holberton School in San Francisco, which trains software and operations engineers in two years and the fees are 17 percent of students’ internship and first three years’ post-graduation earnings.

These less expensive alternatives are not available in enough industries and enough places, making the vast network of community colleges and state four year colleges the default option for most high school counselors and parents. Many are too often located far from potential students who live in economically depressed areas hard hit by globalization.

President Trump wants to increase the number of apprenticeship slots to about 5 million compared to the about 500,000 currently available. Getting that many students to enroll will require a radical rethink of what goes on in high schools–essentially incorporating apprenticeships during the final years of high school or placing students directly into paying apprenticeships on graduation.

Combining the roles of the Departments of Labor and Education with a single leader that can bring that vision to bear seems essential.

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. © 2018, The Washington Times, LLC.