Donald Trump’s unique brand of economic populism played a critical role in his surprising ascension to the presidency, inspiring millions of working class Americans (particularly in the Midwest) to rally behind him. Trump now has a clear mandate to radically alter our policies so that the economy starts working for every American and not just those at the top. While much of his focus will be on trade and job-killing regulations, he also must attack head-on the dogmatic belief among many elites that every American should go to college.
This one-size-fits-all approach actually doesn’t work for everyone, especially given soaring tuition costs. Since the start of 2009 when Barack Obama took office, student loan debt has increased by 98% to a staggering $1.396 trillion; this exceeds Americans’ total credit card debt by about $400 billion. During that time, median wages haven’t budged. When you’re paying potentially over $100,000 to go to college for four years, the economics often don’t work in your favor.
Carrying debt can also stifle entrepreneurship given the uncertainty around future income in light of monthly interest payments. Not coincidentally, the share of Americans employed by a company less than one-year old is at an all-time low. That’s why noted Trump supporter and transition team member Peter Thiel actually paid kids not to go to college and to start a business instead; this is why Trump should closely consult Thiel on this issue. While Trump must work with Congress to find ways to make college more affordable for those choosing to go, he needs to find ways to help Americans for whom college doesn’t make sense achieve their full potential.
What do the occupations of carpenter, plumber, electrician, and machinery mechanic have in common? Several things, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook:
- Each has a median income of $42,000-$52,000, well above the national median wage of $36,200.
- Through 2024, net job growth in these professions is expected to match or exceed the national average, with plumbers and electricians potentially doubling the national average. In total, net new jobs just from these four professions is 270,000. Given retirements, gross jobs openings will be substantially higher.
- Only a high school degree is needed, and workers typically begin a training or apprenticeship role right out of school.
These are good jobs that provide solid pay, entrance to the middle class, and the potential to create one's own path by starting a small business. Yet, we read stories about shortages in these occupations. We should be pushing for them rather than letting them fall by the wayside.
For too long, our policy-making has been beset by a dangerous, snobbish elitism that looks down upon people who work with their hands for a living. Perhaps that is driven in part by how 94% of House members and 100% of Senators have at least a bachelor’s degree - more than double the national rate. Given how his fortune has been amassed by people building things with their hands, Trump is particularly well positioned to attack this harmful stereotype. Just as being a lawyer (of which D.C. has plenty) requires finesse, practice, and skill, so does carpentry or electrical work. Anyone who doesn’t think so likely has never spent a day doing either.
Work brings dignity, but it only does so if that work is respected and appreciated by society. As Trump begins his push to make America great again, he should formulate a plan and use his bully pulpit to encourage working in a skilled trade. These occupations could provide better futures for Americans of all backgrounds and could be especially good fits for Americans in a stagnant working class or for African-Americans and others trapped in poverty, for whom Trump explicitly promised help.
We need to offer high school students in every community, from the poorest inner city to the wealthiest suburb, the opportunity to learn a trade. In this pursuit, we could learn from other developed nations like Germany that have well-developed apprenticeship programs. Providing this opportunity could be an affordable and practical road to the middle class for millions.
Modernizing our education system and changing perceptions will take time, which is why we must start now. Let’s push now to make college affordable, but let’s also help those for whom college doesn’t make sense; they need to acquire a skill in one of many growing, rewarding occupations. After all, America does best when it has a vibrant and growing middle class. We need to cease economic policies oriented around the social preferences of the top 1% and build an economy that works for every American.
If Trump can help disenchanted Americans move up the economic ladder and build better lives for themselves, he can expand his base and build an even more powerful electoral juggernaut. More importantly, he’d leave the country better off than when he found it.