When President Biden told a crowd of union workers this year that every American should have a path to a good career — “whether they go to college or not” — Tyler Wissman listened.
Mr Wissman, father of a child with a high school education, said he rarely heard politicians say that people should be able to get ahead without a college education.
“In my 31 years it was always, ‘You have to go to college if you want a job,'” said Mr. Wissman, who is training as an apprentice at the Finishing Trades Institute in Philadelphia, where the president spoke in March.
As Biden campaigns for re-election, he is trying to bridge an education gap that is reshaping the American political landscape. While both political parties portray education as critical to progress and opportunity, voters with a college education are now more likely to identify as Democrats, while those without a college degree are more likely to support Republicans.
That increasingly clear split has huge implications for Mr. Biden as he seeks to expand the coalition of voters that sent him to the White House in the first place. In 2020, Biden won 61 percent of college graduates, but only 45 percent of voters without a four-year college degree — and only 33 percent of white voters without a four-year degree.
“The Democratic Party has become a cosmopolitan, highly educated party, even if it sees itself as a party of working people,” said David Axelrod, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama.
Mr. Axelrod added that the perception that Wall Street had bailed out of the 2008 recession while the middle class was left to struggle deepened the divide between Democrats and workers who did not attend college.
The election of Donald J. Trump, who used many of those grievances for political gain, reinforced the trend.
“There’s a sense among working-class voters, not just working-class white voters, that the party has no relationship with them or looks down on people who work with their hands or work with their backs or do things that don’t.” need a college degree,” Mr. Axelrod said.
Now, in speeches around the country, Mr. Biden rarely mentions his signature piece of legislation, a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, without also emphasizing that it will lead to trade internships and eventually unionized jobs.
“Let’s provide every American with a path to a good career, whether they go to college or not, like the path you started here,” Biden said at the trade institute, referring to the internship program.
The White House says apprenticeship programs, which typically combine some classroom learning with paid field experience, are crucial to overcoming a tight job market and ensuring there is enough labor to turn the president’s sprawling spending plan into roads, bridges and chargers for electric vehicles.
Mr. Biden has offered incentives for apprenticeship creation, with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants to states expanding such programs.
“Biden is the first president to reduce the need to get a college degree since World War II,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian.
Mr Biden’s approach is a shift from previous Democratic administrations, which focused much more on college as a path to higher pay and promotion. Mr. Obama said in his first joint session of Congress that the United States should “once again have the highest rate of college graduates in the world.”
Obama’s wife, Michelle Obama, started a campaign to encourage Americans to go to college, at one point suggesting in a satirical video that life without a higher education was like looking at a dry painting.
Democrats have long taken a cautious line on the issue. Mr. Biden has been a champion of higher education, particularly community colleges, and one of his most ambitious proposals as president was a $400 billion program to forgive up to $20,000 in student loans to individuals earning less than $125,000 a year. to deserve. Republicans have portrayed that proposal as a giveaway for elites.
Mitch Landrieu, the president’s infrastructure coordinator, said Biden had always believed college was important, but “it’s definitely not the only way to build an economy.”
“He sees that such men and women have been abandoned for a long time,” Mr Landrieu said of people without university degrees. “They have always been part of the Democratic Party. Only recently has that changed.”
The shift coincides with a harsh political reality.
On the battlefield it says that voted for the winning candidate in both 2016 and 2020 is roughly in the middle of higher education levels, meaning Mr Biden’s effort to address unqualified people in 2024 could really make a difference, he said Doug Sosnik, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton.
“You should both try to limit the losses in non-university voters and at the same time try to take advantage in those states with educated voters,” Mr Sosnik said. “You can’t rely on the credential gap alone to win. But it’s part of the formula.”
A similar dynamic is playing out nationally.
Pennsylvania Democrat Governor Josh Shapiro published campaign ads aimed at expanding apprenticeships and removing college degree requirements for thousands of state government jobs — a promise he kept when he took office. Republicans in Maryland, Alaska and Utah have dropped similar degree requirements.
Utah Governor Spencer Cox said he hoped not only to address the stigma attached to those who drop out of college, but also to appease employers increasingly concerned about the ongoing labor shortage.
“We can’t do this kind of thing if we don’t have a workforce,” said Mr. Cox.
Christopher Montague, 29, an Air Force veteran from suburban Philadelphia who trained as a drywall apprentice instead of going to college, said he had noticed an “awakening” in politicians who took the bright side of following vocational training.
“There’s money in working with your hands,” he said.
At the Finishing Trades Institute in Philadelphia, instructors say they’ve noticed an increase in demand. Drew Heverly, an industrial painting instructor, said he had typically had 10 students work on building projects in “a good year”.
This year, he has already sent nearly 40 students to work on projects in Philadelphia funded in part by Mr. Biden’s infrastructure package.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase and a need for manpower,” said Mr. Heverly.
According to Tureka Dixon, the recruiting coordinator for the Finishing Trades Institute, the prospect of getting a trade degree while also making money from projects has been gaining momentum among high school students as well. Community colleges in the area are even reaching out to see if they can form joint partnerships to train students in commerce.
“Whether it’s cranes, high-rises, bridges, that’s trade work,” Ms. Dixon said as the helmeted students listened to a lesson on lead removal. “That is physical work. That is the country, so I think people should take that more into account.”
Mark Smith, 30, who is training as an apprentice at the institute, said learning a trade wasn’t an alternate position for him – it was his preferred career.
“School wasn’t for me,” Mr. Smith said. “I did the Marine Corps and then I started right away. For me it was wasted money.”
Mr Wissman, who has never voted in a presidential election and identifies as an independent, said he was not yet sure whether the White House’s recognition would lead him to finally vote in the 2024 election.
“In office, I want anyone who’s going to help me put food on my table,” said Mr. Wissman, whose girlfriend is pregnant with their second child. “In the end, it all comes down to that.”