When Joe Biden (pictured) announced the Finishing Trades Institute in Philadelphia as the location for his annual budget speech last week, I was intrigued and decided to attend. I’ve written about the importance of trades schools, which are common in Europe but often overlooked in the US, at various points in my career while working for German news publications. Yet in his 50-minute speech, the president mentioned the institute and its apprenticeship programme only once, almost as an afterthought. He spent far more time defending a policy that would bring back manufacturing jobs from overseas by forcing federal contractors to “buy American”.
The oversight was a shame. The Finishing Trades Institute offers one of the country’s foremost “earn-to-learn” apprenticeship programmes; its assistant director of education, Erin O’Brien-Hofmann, says that it’s the “gold standard”. Students get paid to work as painters, drywall finishers and glaziers and emerge after four years with an associate degree. The number of registered apprenticeships has grown by almost two thirds in the US over the past decade and one of the less heralded aspects of Biden’s latest budget is the allocation of more than $630m (€587m) for apprenticeships, on-the-job training schemes and community colleges.
Hoffman acknowledges that there’s still a stigma attached to apprenticeships and trade schools in the US, especially when compared to universities. It would help the cause of organisations such as the Finishing Trades Institute if Biden used his bully pulpit to support the idea. The culture wars in the US have sadly entered the world of education, whether it’s arguments about teaching critical race theory in schools or the alleged liberal bias of universities, which has resulted in some conservatives warning their children against going to college. But the value of apprenticeships, as an alternative to university education, is something that both sides can readily agree on. Why don’t we finally give them the credit and backing that they deserve?