College isn't for everyone. Flawed Pell grants program should help skilled labors

Greg R. Lawson Oct 02, 2022

This opinion piece was first published by The Columbus Dispatch.

Like most states around the country, Ohio has posted a “Help Wanted” sign on its door.

Getting quality labor has become its own national crisis as the U.S. workforce has roughly 600,000 fewer workers than it did before the pandemic.

And the labor shortage is no more acutely felt than on Ohio construction sites as contractors clamor for skilled labor, journeymen, and apprentices willing to grab a hammer and lend a hand.

The Associated Building Contractors estimates that the country currently faces a deficit of 650,000 construction workers nationwide needed to keep pace with demand—a shortage that does not bode well for finding the 7,000 tradesmen required to build Intel’s new semiconductor plant in central Ohio.

Central Ohio’s economic boom has blessed area businesses and the families they help support. But it has also applied pressure to the region’s workforce and housing market, driving up prices by reducing supply of affordable housing and available labor.

A free market will eventually alleviate some of the pressures as better pay attracts more workers and stable home values entice more builders. But in the meantime, Ohio businesses need help, and state educational incentives and regulatory policies continue to work against them.

College offers some graduates rewarding careers and financial benefits, no doubt. But college is not for everyone, and the rampantly rising costs of higher education have changed the debt-to-earnings ratios for students who might otherwise have wisely considered apprenticeships, lucrative careers in the trades, or attending community college first to save on high-priced college credits.

Public policies can and should be changed to help more students pursue these other opportunities, bring their talents and skills to market, and help relieve the labor shortage in the process.

Ohio should expand its “opportunity grants” program so that more students can take fuller advantage of grant funding.

Under the state’s flawed “Pell-first” policy, low-income community college students have limited access to opportunity grant funding because a Pell grant covers the cost of affordable community college tuition and leaves them ineligible for additional grant money.

The Pell-first requirement ignores additional costs of attending college and thus prevents lower-income students from pursuing associate degrees.

And it gets worse.

Opportunity grants are also unavailable to students seeking required job training certificates for careers in construction, supply chain management, carpentry, plumbing, and welding, for example—job skills that Ohio sorely needs, but which its grant policies discourage.

Those policies should change, and Pell grants should be available to students earning valuable training certificates and on-the-job skills.

State lawmakers should also relieve some workforce pressure by making it easier for licensed professionals to come work in Ohio.

Unfortunately, the state’s longstanding Mother, may I? approach to earning in a living here requires out-of-state license holders to clear annoying, expensive, and time-consuming obstacles before they can be hired by the businesses that desperately need them.

Too many valued workers understandably conclude that coming to work in Ohio is just not worth the hassle. Eighteen other states have already realized that universal occupational licensing — that is, honoring another state’s professional licenses for plumbers, electricians, welders, and other trades — will help them attract and retain the skilled workers needed to build houses, infrastructures, and semiconductor factories. But Ohio has yet to join them.

Ohio businesses need help. They need workers willing to learn a trade, practice a profession, and build a career. And they need public policies that will help them get that job done.

Greg R. Lawson is a research fellow at The Buckeye Institute.