During my four decades coaching, I always told my players that education was the key to freedom. I saw my job as more than just teaching them how to run a two-minute drill or the Cover-3. My job was also teaching them how to be successful off the field through the same hard work, determination, and discipline they learned on the gridiron. Only a select few would get to play football professionally, so the rest needed to prepare for a different career path.
No two students were the same. What motivated one could dishearten another. I saw the plain truth that every student is unique, with varying skills, interests, challenges, and backgrounds.
But today’s students are facing more than the usual homework and social life balance. The pandemic has added an additional layer of challenges from virtual learning to changes in the job market. When we think about setting students up for success in the wake of a global pandemic, our strategy must reflect both the inherent uniqueness of each student and the realities of the job market. Rather than pushing every student down the same expensive four-year college route, we should be exposing students to training for good-paying, fulfilling jobs that exist in our communities.
Getting students ready for a career has to start earlier than college, and that means bringing our education, workforce, and business sectors more in line with one other. Alabama is home to many large-scale manufacturing operations that offer good-paying jobs. Yet time and again, companies will tell me there are not enough skilled workers to fill the slots available. Thankfully, the Wiregrass has quality career and technical programs at institutions like Wallace Community College and Dothan Tech, but we need more students to recognize the value of learning these important skills to find good-paying, 21stcentury jobs.
Washington will soon turn its attention to infrastructure and investing in much-needed improvements. But before we go spending taxpayer money, we need to make sure we’ve got enough appropriately skilled workers to implement the projects we need, like bridge repair and rural broadband expansion.
The need to increase cooperation between education and industry was the focus of my recent visit to Dothan, where I met with local government, business, and education leaders. I’ll be serving on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which oversees workforce development programs, and the best way to be an effective voice in Washington is to listen to the folks on the ground back home.
What I heard from leaders in Dothan is that we should start exposing kids to fulfilling career opportunities sooner so we don’t box them in to a traditional college degree they can’t afford and can’t use to find a job. Let’s begin introducing students to quality career and technical education programs in high school and show them how to work with their hands.
I also heard from folks that recent pushes to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour would severely hamper our small businesses that are already hurting from the pandemic and would negatively affect teenage workers looking for experience the most. This increase doesn’t create job opportunities – it destroys them. Our goal must be encouraging jobs and independence, not dependence on government.
The threat of the virus will eventually recede, but the lasting economic devastation it brought can only be cured through increased coordination between education and industry. Judging by my visit, Washington could learn a few lessons from Dothan, and I intend to bring some Wiregrass common sense to America’s federal policies.
Our students have unlimited potential, and there are plenty of rewarding jobs that need filling today. Let’s empower students with the many pathways available, not the stale cookie-cutter approach of the last decade.
Tommy Tuberville represents Alabama in the United States Senate.