As the country nervously watches the nation’s ports, wondering if Christmas presents will arrive in time, they’re missing the “root causes” of the problem, to borrow a quote from our vacuous Vice President. The real origins of our supply chain breakdown happened long ago – and did so in our nation’s schools, not our shipyards.
The current problem is not with products or production – there are a million containers of goods stuck out at sea – already ordered and made – unable to be delivered to the store or consumer. The issue is the breakdown of people. Skilled labor. People who drive forklifts and trucks and tugboats and cranes. These are good jobs – often highly paid – providing full benefits, pensions and a lifelong career of growth and pay increases. So, where are the people to fill these jobs? We can’t find them today because we eliminated the supply chain of skilled laborers in our schools long ago.
Young children who dream of driving a semi-truck, piloting a large ship, working a forklift or operating a crane are told from a young age they shouldn’t learn to do those jobs, they should go to college. Young people could have gone into these careers and enjoyed a life of fulfillment in an industry they loved. Yet many were coerced into four years of college, accruing debt and now are unemployed or unemployable due to having a degree that gave them a piece of paper, but not any skills that are usable – or needed.
Do we still have Americans who can build things, engineer things, fix things, move things? If we do, it’s not because we have incentivized those skills, it’s in spite of the pressure we have put on America’s children to think there is one path to success – college. We see now the error of such narrow focus. I applaud those who chose the pathway of a vocation and found pride in their work outside of higher education. We need them now, more than ever.
America long ago shifted its manufacturing to China and imported laborers to do jobs “Americans would never do.” The education system has widely snubbed their nose at those who work with their hands, who create and craft and repair the very fabric of our society. Trades and vocational skills are desperately needed now, yet the arrogance of academia has dictated that value does not and cannot lie in that sort of work.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am not anti-college – I come from a family of educators, I steered my children toward college, and I have a college degree. What I am against is prescribing a one size fits all pathway to success. The former Secretary of Education, William Bennett, wrote a book entitled, “Is College Worth It?” In many instances, even his determination was “no.”
Especially our young boys (am I allowed to write such a gender-specific word?!) - they don’t mind getting dirty and love to build things, break things and figure out how to fix them again. They don’t like to sit still in a classroom all day. They need to move and use gross motor skills, not just fine motor skills. They don’t take pride in coloring within the lines, doing everything in a prescribed order, using an “inside voice,” or learning exclusively with their eyes and ears and not with their hands.
The average boy spends 13 years in the school system where he is told he is doing it wrong, isn’t good enough, should be quieter, calmer, more focused, and more obedient. By the time he graduates high school, his spirit is broken, his confidence shattered, his self-esteem demoralized, and his interest in spending four more years in the classroom is greatly diminished. It’s no wonder why. And our college enrollment numbers validate this as nearly every college in the nation has more female students than male. Is this considered success?
The measure of success should be aligned with how many high school students graduate with the next step in mind. If it’s to become a plumber, a mechanic, an electrician or other tradesman, we should encourage, not shame that - for both our boys and our girls. By the time their peers graduate from a 4-year university and have accrued $250K of debt, the skilled high school graduate could be four years into their profession, already advancing and making money while simultaneously not making student loan payments.
President Trump, a “blue-collar billionaire” who made his money primarily building things, understood this. He sought to restore trade and tech training in our high schools and, in many instances, removed the college degree requirement from a wide swath of our Federal government jobs, believing that experience and the merits of skill should count toward qualification, not just a diploma.
To protect our national interests, we need to bring manufacturing home. We wouldn’t be waiting on so many imported goods if we made more goods here in the USA. But we can’t manufacture anything here unless we have workers who know how to make things. The Ivy League doesn’t produce those types of people.
And we need to once again incentivize American companies to move their headquarters back stateside, out of China and other international markets. Our tax and regulatory framework under President Trump was doing just that. Mr. Biden would be wise to continue those policies, not end them.
By having more people who can fix problems here at home, not just point them out, we will be stronger, more nimble, less reliant on China and have domestic solutions to our greatest problems.
To fix our supply chain issues long term, we need to fix the pipeline which supplies our workforce. We need to value every link in the chain – and encourage more of our young people to join it in places in dire need and make us stronger.
• Peggy Grande (@peggy_grande) is the author of “The President Will See You Now: My Stories and Lessons from Ronald Reagan’s Final Years.” She was executive assistant to President Ronald Reagan from 1989 – 1999 and served as a political appointee in the Trump Administration. She was Chair of World for Brexit, serves on the National Board of the Royal Commonwealth Society of the USA, the Board of Advisors for Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and the Board of Directors for the Center for American Ideas.