Educating and Training for Adults Largely Ignored in 2013 State of the Union Address

Last night I was reviewing the President’s 2013 State of the Union address alongside my my notes on last year’s address. The thing I remember most strongly about last year’s speech was the President’s reference to a “maze of confusing training programs” which, at the time, (tweeting on behalf of D.C. LEARNs), I thought might be interpreted as a vague endorsement of the proposal then being floated by House Republicans to consolidate Workforce Investment Act (WIA) job training programs:

2012 SOTU Tweet

Sure enough, when House Republicans released their WIA reauthorization bill last spring, (H.R. 4297, the Workforce Investment Improvement Act of 2012), they used this quote in their fact sheet. In retrospect, I think the quote was taken entirely out of context (it seems clear when you read the President’s entire speech that he was talking about consolidating information about federal job training programs, not the programs themselves) but the House Committee on Education and the Workforce used the President’s words time and time again throughout the spring to support their arguments.

But hey, at least the President talked about job training and adult skills last year. Jobs were, in fact, explicitly linked to a proposal to support more job training. The President said that he had been hearing from business leaders “who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills.”  He then issued this call to action:

Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My administration has already lined up more companies that want to help.  Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, and Orlando, and Louisville are up and running.  Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers -– places that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing. (my emphasis)

And I want to cut through the maze of confusing training programs, so that from now on, people like Jackie have one program, one website, and one place to go for all the information and help that they need.  It is time to turn our unemployment system into a reemployment system that puts people to work.

But on Tuesday night the President barely mentioned adult skills. And when he did, it was to introduce other education proposals:

These initiatives in manufacturing, energy, infrastructure, and housing will help entrepreneurs and small business owners expand and create new jobs. But none of it will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs. And that has to start at the earliest possible age.

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.

Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.

Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job. At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.

In 2012, preparing Americans for unfilled jobs required job training and community colleges and partnerships with businesses to retrain workers for new jobs. Last night, by contrast, when the President said that we must “equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill [new] jobs,” he immediately pivoted to his preschool proposal, and retraining adults is never mentioned. He then goes on to discuss the need to ensure that high school diplomas “puts our kids on a path to a good job.”

In other words, in 2012, preparing citizens for new jobs was linked to job training for adults; this year, it was linked to preschool and high school education. Adult training or re-training was never actually discussed at all. (It was only mentioned again as a segue into his discussion of immigration reform.)

No one I know in the field of adult education or job training is opposed to the idea of improving high school education or improving access to high-quality pre-school, (although, if we are serious about preparing kids for success in school, our strategy should include efforts to improve the skills of parents/caregivers), but I’ve never understood how improving preschool education is going to help us fill the jobs that are available now.

And it can’t help but make one wonder about the adminstrations’s engagement/commitment to WIA reauthorization. Perhaps after House Republicans appropriated his remarks on job training last year, he decided it was best not to get into the subject again last night. Or maybe it’s just a case of not having the time to hit on every priority, and/or wanting to keep the speech fresh. Hopefully it’s not a sign that adult education and training has slipped a further down the administration’s list of priorities.