More than 6,500 students from across the country — ranging from middle school age to college — are in Louisville this week as part of the annual SkillsUSA conference. It’s a showcase of skilled trades and technical education, and features contests in fields such as plumbing, masonry and carpentry.
This focus on students learning trades is also a priority of the Trump administration. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos toured some of the conference exhibits Thursday with Gov. Matt Bevin.
Last week, the Trump administration announced a proposal to merge the departments of Education and Labor. The merger would need approval from Congress. It’s part of the administration’s focus on technical education and skill-building.
As NPR reported, the proposed merger was included in a plan announced last year by Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget:
The consolidation would create, within the new department, four subagencies, including one called the American Workforce and Higher Education Administration. This agency would, according to the proposal, “bring together current [Department of Labor] workforce development programs and [Department of Education] vocational education, rehabilitation, and higher education programs,” eliminating some redundancy across multiple agencies.
The proposal would also create subagencies devoted to K-12 education, research/evaluation/administration, and enforcement. The latter would enforce both worker protections and civil rights laws that protect the nation’s students.
Allan Hilbert is a service manager at Miller Electric based in Wisconsin. He also works with the educational products the company builds. Hilbert had a chance to see DeVos at the conference and said he appreciates her making an appearance.
“I thought it was great that she was here and supporting and just showing up here at SkillsUSA,” he said. “All these people here, they recognize that as the support that they are getting here from their government.”
DeVos’ appointment to the federal role has been controversial because of her lack of education experience and support for charter schools. But Kent Powell, a national sales manager at Indiana-based Amatrol, was also happy to see DeVos at the conference.
“It was significant to have her stop by, along with the governor, and talk about the opportunity here in this area, and here in SkillsUSA to introduce students to this technology,” Powell said.
Hilbert said opportunities for welding jobs are all around and the SkillsUSA event is a great way to connect students to jobs.
“Every day there’s people building bridges, iron workers, union jobs,” he said. “Every building you see going up in a city, there’s some welding going on.”
The salary range for welders and similar jobs in the Louisville area range from approximately $27,000 to $52,000. The living wage for an adult in Jefferson County is approximately $11.00 per hour; the minimum wage is $7.25.
The SkillsUSA conference wraps up Friday.