David Thompson ran track in high school, and that athletic talent might have paved a path to college. But an injury his senior year created what he described as “a new opportunity.” Four years after his graduation in 2014, Thompson returned last week to his alma mater, Tampa Bay Tech in Tampa Fla., to describe what happened after that injury forced him to “fall back” on vocational training.
“I’m a pipe welder, and I’m telling this to the kids: You can have a trade, and you can be successful,” he said July 31 with President Donald Trump at his side. “I make over six figures a year. I’m 23. I love it.”
Thompson broke out into a wide grin as the audience cheered and Trump patted him on the back.
“That’s pretty good,” the president said, prompting more cheers.
Thompson joined Trump for an event touting the value of vocational training. Before traveling to the Sunshine State, the president signed a bill that provides $1 billion in funding for workforce training programs at high schools and community colleges across the country. The reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act is the most significant education-related bill of the Trump administration so far.
It passed through Congress with little fanfare and even less bickering, a remarkable feat of bipartisanship in today’s fractured political climate. Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank, attributes the bill’s smooth passage to the growing awareness that decades of education policy reforms overemphasized the importance of going to college. While a four-year degree does provide a path to the middle class, Petrilli said, that’s not the right choice for every student.
“I think a lot of us have come to understand that we made a big mistake decades ago when we really started to diminish the career and technical education programs that we had in our high schools,” he said. “And there’s been this effort to bring them back and make them stronger to make sure that they lead to good jobs and meaningful opportunities.”
Congress first passed the Perkins Act in 2006. The reauthorization doesn’t plow much new ground, but it does give states more authority to set goals for training programs and decide how to measure their success. That emphasis on local control could help overcome one major criticism of vocational training programs: their inability to react to the sometimes rapidly changing job market. If states allow local communities to design programs that best suit their industries, students might actually get the kind of training that can land them a job.
The workforce initiative Trump announced ahead of the Perkins Act reauthorization also emphasizes apprenticeships, where students get an on-the-job education. Petrilli calls that kind of specialized training vital to creating successful career and technical education programs. He said too many schools, even those with a vocational focus, allow students to “dabble,” taking just a few courses in a specific area, instead of getting serious about workplace training through experience.
“This is where our high schools are way behind what’s happening in many other advanced countries,” Petrilli noted.
U.S. companies participating in the National Council for the American Worker have vowed to train or retrain 4 million job seekers. Trump hopes many of them will have as much success as David Thompson.
“Wow, that’s a great job. He’s doing well,” the president declared amid more cheers. “David, how much did you say? That’s a lot of money!”