Sen. Tommy Tuberville

Growing up, every kid wants to play quarterback. But as a football coach, it’s your job to make sure the other positions are filled in a way that maximizes each player’s abilities and, collectively, the team. A lot of kids may not want to play offensive lineman at first, until they realize they actually thrive at the position, and that without them, the team falls apart.

A team full of only quarterbacks is dysfunctional. To push players to exclusively pursue one position does the players, and ultimately the team, a disservice.

Right now, our education system is essentially offering only the “quarterback” path when they push students to pursue a four-year college degree. That’s a problem because a traditional four-year college is not the best fit for every single student. By boxing students into one path for higher education, many quality jobs are left unfilled.

The reality is that there are multiple viable pathways available to students pursuing a higher education degree or credential. Dual enrollment programs, career and technical education, apprenticeships, and other formal learning opportunities all can provide students with important skills that lead to good jobs and fulfilling careers. 

We shouldn’t be afraid to admit that a four-year residential college may not be the best fit for every student. Many students would prefer to work with their hands rather than sit through long lectures. Other students may not want to take out mountains of debt in loans to pay for a degree that may not actually lead to sustainable employment.

Our great country is paying a price for this top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

While the pandemic has certainly placed enormous strain on workers and businesses alike, the skills gap existed even when the economy was roaring. In January of 2020, there were still nearly 7 million unfilled jobs in the United States because there were not enough skilled workers to fill them. This was at a time when we had record low unemployment and record high workforce participation.

In some ways the pandemic has only made the need for skilled workers greater. With folks moving away from cities to more rural or suburban spaces, we still need plumbers, electricians, welders, and machinists to build new houses and support the surrounding communities. 

There are a number of ways we can close the skills gap and put folks on the path to sustainable success. 

For starters, business and industry must partner more closely with their local high schools and community colleges.

I think about the Cristo Rey network of schools, including Holy Family Cristo Rey High School in Birmingham, which uses a corporate work study program to partner high school students, all of whom are low-income, with internships at businesses in the student’s field of interest. The students work one day a week and the company covers 45 percent of the student’s tuition. These programs expose students to real-world job environments and give them valuable professional experience.

Similarly, Airbus in Mobile offers local high school seniors apprenticeship opportunities to pursue careers in aerospace right out of high school. The nine-month program gives students who love working with their hands the opportunity to join a growing sector with a good-paying job. It’s a win all-around for the students, the company, and the community. We need more programs like Cristo Rey and Airbus’s across the country.

In some cases, education debt can be crippling for the student and a bad investment for the federal government, which subsidizes a significant portion of each student loan. Currently, student loans can only be used at traditional institutions of higher education to fund degrees across a wide variety of subjects, from chemical engineering to medieval basket weaving. But some economists have proposed that those loans should also be allowed to underwrite on-the-job training at a successful company that needs more skilled workers.

As Oren Cass writes at the American Compass, “The prospect of hiring and internally training inexperienced workers would instantly become an attractive opportunity rather than a risky burden.” These ideas should lead to serious debate on what our expected return on investment is with student loans.

We can also do more to make adult education accessible for those who get laid off or are looking to change careers. Right now, the U.S. spends only 0.1 percent of our GDP on programs that actively encourage labor force participation, the second-lowest of any developed country. Our goal should be to foster programs that actually incentivize people to find jobs or get retrained with marketable skills, rather than simply paying them not to work for long periods of time.

It’s past time we as a country recommit to allowing students to explore the multiple higher education pathways available to them. Traditional college isn’t for everyone, and that’s ok. Expanding options for educational training can greatly benefit students and fill the existing skills gaps in our economy. 

Everybody doesn’t need to be a quarterback. When folks discover the many valuable roles that are out there, we can have ourselves a solid team capable of winning on the world stage.

Senator Tommy Tuberville represents Alabama in the United States Senate and is a member of the Senate Armed Services, Agriculture, Veterans’ Affairs and HELP Committees. He can be reached at (202) 224-4124, on his website at tuberville.senate.gov, on Facebook at Senator Tuberville, Twitter @SenTuberville or by mailing him at Dirksen Senate Office Building, Suite B40A, Washington, DC 20510.

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