In his State of the Union Address President Biden said “let’s offer every American the path to a good career whether they go to college or not” and he encouraged Congress to “finish the job” on connecting students with career opportunities. This is an issue that has long been impacting employers across the nation and the shortage of trained workers in the skilled trades has been well documented.
According to research from the National Skills Coalition, a majority of American jobs (52%) require skills training beyond high school but not a formal college degree. It is estimated that there are more than 10 million unfilled jobs across the country but there are also nearly six million unemployed Americans looking for work. A significant driver of this imbalance is that too few workers can access the training and education needed to fill these jobs, and there has been no clear national strategy to remedy this problem. Now, for the first time, lawmakers are proposing that federal Pell Grants can be used for short-term job training programs that lead to industry-recognized credentials and certificates. It is the first step in postsecondary education policy reform that is long overdue.
Recently introduced legislation in the new Congress shows there is bipartisan support among lawmakers for broadening access to Pell Grants. House Bill H.R. 496, the Promoting Employment and Lifelong Learning (PELL) Act, seeks to increase training opportunities for those looking to gain skills in high-demand fields by expanding access to Pell Grants for students in high-quality, short-term programs. At the same time, the Jumpstarting Our Business by Supporting Students (JOBS) Act has been re-introduced in the Senate, which seeks to accomplish the same.
Postsecondary education policies in our country were created over 50 years ago and no longer fit the needs of today’s students, or the rapidly changing skills needed in today’s labor market. Somewhere along the way, educators became focused on the premise that every high school student should go to college to earn a four-year degree. But not every student has the desire, nor the aptitude for, pursuing a college degree. The PELL and JOBS Acts represent acknowledgment by lawmakers that outdated higher education policies have been failing the Americans who desire access to vocational training options that lead to career advancement and a ladder to economic mobility.
Trade schools that offer short-term vocational and career training programs have long been viable options that are considerably more affordable for many students. The institutions delivering these types of quality programs have demonstrated expertise with student success for many years, providing a valuable education at a fraction of the cost and time compared to a traditional 4-year degree.
Outdated higher education policies have also failed American employers. A coalition including several major American companies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and a host of industry associations listed short-term Pell as a top priority in a letter last week to Congress saying “…job seekers increasingly want more flexible, affordable, and career-relevant education aligned to the labor market. The stakes have never been higher to meet the demands of this moment for current and future generations.”
America’s workforce is its most important economic asset. Using Pell Grants to unlock access to career training programs prioritizes what workers and businesses need to fill in-demand jobs in a 21st-century economy. The people who do jobs that require skills training build and repair our infrastructure, care for us when we are sick, keep our utilities and vehicles running, and so much more.
When businesses can hire the skilled workers they need to innovate, compete, and grow—and when people have the opportunities to put their talents to work—we all benefit as a nation. With bipartisan support for both measures, I hope Congress will heed the president’s appeal to “get the job done.”
Fardad Fateri, Ph.D., is the chairman and Chief Executive Officer of International Education Corporation, which owns and operates accredited career and vocational training schools including Florida Career College and Sage Truck Driving Schools.
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