US Labor Secretary Alex Acosta.
US Labor Secretary Alex Acosta. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta’s Thursday morning stop at San Antonio’s Construction Careers Academy may be indicative of what is to come if a proposed Department of Education and Department of Labor merger is successful.

Several months ago, the White House debuted a plan to merge the two into a single cabinet agency called the Department of Education and the Workforce as part of an initiative to make the government leaner.

The new department would be charged with “meeting the needs of American students and workers from education and skill development to workplace protection to retirement security,” according to the 132-page proposal.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney previously said that the two departments were “doing the same thing.”

The Construction Careers Academy, Northside Independent School District’s magnet program that teaches construction industry skills, illustrates the intersection between education and the labor force, and Acosta emphasized his belief that considering multiple paths after high school graduation is necessary.

“College is a path and this is a path, and it should be [a student’s] choice,” Acosta said. “Students should also look at wages and look at student debt and think about what they want to do.”

He went on to say that some people who graduate from college “make less than the graduates of this kind of high school right here.”

“Let’s celebrate everyone’s individual choice and respect that choice, and if we do that we are going to have more and more young Americans choosing skilled trades that are taught right here,” Acosta said.

This observation contrasts with a push by some local superintendents and higher education leaders for low-income students to obtain college degrees. San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, for example, often has stated that to truly break the cycle of poverty, low-income students have to obtain higher education.

Having more skill-based high school programs helps satisfy a need for a larger pool of candidates in labor-based industries. Acosta called programs like Northside’s Construction Careers Academy a “short-term” solution for labor shortages in the construction industry. If schools ramp up similar programs now, in a year there will be more graduates to fill industry demand, he said.

The labor secretary told reporters that “demand-driven education” is ideal, where schools listen to businesses to meet future workforce needs.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.