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 was listening.
Wissman, a father of one with a high school education, said he rarely heard politicians say that people should be able to get by without a college degree.
“In my 31 years, it was always, ‘You have to go to college if you want a job,’” said Wissman, who is training as an apprentice at the Finishing Trades Institute in Philadelphia, where the president spoke in March.
As Mr. Biden campaigns for re-election, he is trying to close an education gap that is reshaping the American political landscape. Although both political parties present education as crucial to advancement and opportunity, college-educated voters are more likely to identify as Democrats, while those without college degrees are more likely to support Republicans.
That increasingly clear divide has huge implications for Biden as he tries to expand the coalition of voters that sent him to the White House in the first place. In 2020, Mr. 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 college degree.
“The Democratic Party has become a cosmopolitan, college-educated party even though it is a party that considers itself a workers’ party,” said David Axelrod, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama.
Axelrod added that the perception that Wall Street had been bailed out during the 2008 recession while the middle class was forced to fight deepened the rift between Democrats and blue-collar workers who didn’t attend college.
The election of Donald J. Trump, who took advantage of many of those complaints for political gain, solidified the trend.
“There is a feeling among working-class voters, and not just among white working-class voters, that the party doesn’t engage with them or looks down on people who work with their hands or work on their backs or do things that do not require a college education,” Mr. Axelrod said.
Now, in speeches across the country, Mr. Biden rarely talks about his flagship legislation, a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, without also emphasizing that it will lead to business apprenticeships and ultimately union jobs.
“Let’s offer all Americans a path to a good career, whether they go to college or not, like the path they started here,” Biden said at the trades institute, referring to its apprenticeship program.
The White House says apprenticeship programs, which typically combine some classroom learning with paid work experience, are crucial to weathering a tight job market and ensuring there is a sufficient workforce to turn the president’s sprawling spending plan around. on roads, bridges. and electric vehicle chargers.
Mr. Biden has offered incentives to create apprenticeships, with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants to states that expand such programs.
“Biden is the first president to reduce the need for a college degree since World War II,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian.
Biden’s focus is a departure from previous Democratic administrations, which were much more focused on college as a path to higher pay and advancement. Mr. Obama, during his first joint session of Congress, said that the United States should “get back to having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”
Obama’s wife, Michelle Obama, started a campaign encouraging Americans to go to college, at one point suggesting in a satirical video that life without higher education was akin to watching the paint dry.
Democrats have long walked a careful 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 the student loan debt of 40 million Americans. . Republicans have presented that proposal as a gift to the elites.
Mitch Landrieu, the president’s infrastructure coordinator, said Biden had always believed that college was important, but that “it’s absolutely not the only way to build an economy.”
“He sees that men and women like that have been left behind for a long time,” Landrieu said of people without college degrees. “They have always been part of the Democratic Party. It’s not until recently that that has changed.”
The change coincides with a harsh political reality.
The battleground states that voted for the winning candidate in both 2016 and 2020 rank roughly in the middle in higher education levels, meaning Biden’s effort to appeal to those without a degree could make a difference. real difference in 2024, according to Doug. Sosnik, a former top adviser to President Bill Clinton.
“You have to try to mitigate the losses with non-college voters and at the same time try to exploit the advantage in those states with educated voters,” Mr. Sosnik said. “You cannot rely solely on the diploma division to win. But it’s part of the formula.”
A similar dynamic is playing out across the country.
Gov. Josh Shapiro, D-Pennsylvania, ran campaign ads focused on expanding apprenticeships and eliminating college degree requirements for thousands of state government jobs, a promise he delivered on when he took office. Republicans in Maryland, Alaska and Utah have eliminated similar degree requirements.
Gov. Spencer Cox, a Utah Republican, said he hoped not only to address the stigma attached to those not attending college, but also to appease employers increasingly anxious about persistent worker shortages.
“We can’t do any of this if we don’t have the manpower,” Cox said.
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” by politicians about the positive side of seeking trade training.
“There is 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 typically had 10 apprentices working on construction projects in “a good year.”
This year, he has already sent nearly 40 trainees to work on projects in Philadelphia that are partially funded by Mr. Biden’s infrastructure package.
“We have definitely seen the increase and the need for labor,” Mr. Heverly said.
The prospect of getting a trade education while earning money on projects has also gained momentum among high school students, according to Finishing Trades Institute hiring coordinator Tureka Dixon. Community colleges in the area are even reaching out to see if they can form joint partnerships to train students in the trade.
“Whether it’s cranes, high-rise buildings, bridges, that’s commercial work,” Ms. Dixon said as trainees in hard hats listened to a lesson on lead removal. “That is physical work. That’s the country, so I think people need to consider it more.”
Mark Smith, 30, who is training as an apprentice at the institute, said learning a trade was not an alternative position for him, it was his preferred career.
“School was not for me,” said Mr. Smith. “I did the Marine Corps and then I just started in this. It was a waste of money for me.”
Wissman, who has never voted in a presidential election and identifies as an independent, said he was not yet sure whether recognition from the White House would prompt him to ultimately vote in the 2024 election.
“I want in office whoever will help me put food on my table,” Wissman said. “At the end of the day, that’s all it’s going to come down to.”