Sally O’Dowd is the author of the blog Creativity Is Contagious about business, politics and the arts.
OPEN LETTER MARCH 19, 2017
Dear President Trump:
I stopped what I was doing, immediately sat down, when CNN started a live broadcast of your March 17 discussions with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her delegation. Indeed, Germany is renown for its programs to train technical workers for manufacturing jobs. Believing in your mission to create more high-wage jobs in our country, I am writing to share my expertise on the matter and suggest resources you may want to tap.
Mr. President, with the delegation around your table, you read from a paper, describing “vocational training” as “important words.” In Germany, vocational training is delivered under the dual-education model whereby students apprentice at a company while taking classes at vocational school (berufsschule). It’s a system that dates back to the guilds of the middle ages.
After getting my master’s in journalism from Northwestern University, during the first years of the Clinton Administration, I joined the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing (NACFAM) in Washington, D.C. I worked under the tutelage of NACFAM founder Leo Reddy, who was a negotiator of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty while in the U.S. Foreign Service. The INF was signed at the White House on December 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final ruler of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Reddy’s goal was clear: ensure that Americans reap the rewards from the peace dividend. Indeed, our tax dollars had won the Cold War. NACFAM advocated that some of those defense dollars go to programs that would accelerate U.S. manufacturing for commercial purposes, create high-wage jobs and bolster America’s economic competitiveness.
In the Senate, Ohio’s John Glenn was a major catalyst. In 1989, he authored legislation to create an Advanced Civilian Technology Agency in the Department of Commerce, which would support commercial industry, similar to the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Mr. Glenn, a Marine Corps aviator and the first astronaut to circle the Earth, spoke at a NACFAM conference in 1993; when he entered the room surrounded by staffers, he seemed to float on air despite gravity. In the end his proposal to bolster innovation under the umbrella of a commercial “CARPA” was not enacted.
As part of our research to see how the U.S. might replicate the German model, we organized a delegation of business executives and professors from community colleges to tour the country, which was still in the process of reunification. Bonn was the capital. Traveling by bus, we visited Siemens, Mercedes, Volkswagen, the Bundestag, and the Ministry of Education. I was there to report on our visit for the NACFAM member newsletter. Fax-on-demand was the high-tech distribution service at the time.
Mr. Reddy also gave me the incredible opportunity to write NACFAM’s position paper, which argued for increased federal funding for workforce training. My analysis of the federal education budget concluded that the U.S. government’s expenditures were inadequate.
We presented our arguments at a forum we for a group of executives and educators. Clinton’s deputy domestic policy director delivered the keynote (he worked in a windowless office surrounded by papers). Our private-public coalition then lobbied Congress to increase funding in this area. Conservatives such as Strom Thurmond and Mitch McConnell were not interested. However, Ted Kennedy gladly held our paper in his hands.
A bi-partisan Congress ultimately rose to the challenge. President Clinton signed the School to Work Opportunities Act of 1994 during an outdoor ceremony at the White House. Mr. Reddy and I were thrilled to join the hundreds of people in attendance, the grass at our feet, a white tent over our heads.
“In today’s global economy, a nation’s greatest resource—indeed, the ultimate source of its wealth—is its people,” said the president in his official statement archived by The American Presidency Project. “To compete and win, our work force must be well-educated, well-trained, and highly skilled. Let me repeat what I said earlier this year: “We are living in a world where what you earn is a function of what you can learn . . . and where there can no longer be a division between what is practical and what is academic.”
Congress appropriated $45 million to STWOA in fiscal year 1994; $122.5 million in FY 1995; and $180 million in FY 1996. STWOA was jointly run by the Departments of Education and Labor.
By 1997, I had become the government and education reporter for Greenwich (Conn.) Time, and had the uncanny opportunity to cover student learning through STWOA grants at Greenwich High School. Funding for the National School to Work Office was cut in 2001 during the Bush Administration.
Mr. President, thank you for bringing attention to the important issue of workforce training and high-wage jobs. As you move forward, a historical approach and a call to the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing and its sister organization, the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council, would be worth your while.