Career Technical Education Keeps Students, Economy on Track

Career Technical Education Keeps Students, Economy on Track

Career Technical Education (CTE) has been around for years, but it’s just beginning to be recognized as a viable solution to the country’s skills gap: the mismatch between what employers need and what job seekers offer. Although unemployment is high, companies are desperate for technicians who can work with wind, natural gas and other critical energy resources. Mechatronics — a cross between mechanical engineering and electronics — is especially valued in factories that require technicians skilled in using computers, lasers and robotics. Even individuals in a traditional field such as auto mechanics now regularly use complex computer systems to diagnose problems.

Unfortunately, CTE still suffers under the old “vo-tech” stigma as being the place for students who can’t succeed in academic classes. Instead, CTE should be seen as an essential part of college and career success for all students, and critical to transforming the U.S. economy. Manufacturing jobs, in particular, are on the rise. As a high school career placement coordinator in Charlotte, North Carolina told me on a recent visit, “Manufacturing is not dead. The jobs are not going to China. We need highly trained, highly skilled technicians right here.” To fulfill industry need, his school — Olympic High School — is partnering with the German industrial giant Siemens Corporation, also located in Charlotte.

Siemens Corporation selects qualifying high school juniors and seniors and pays them 40 hours per week to do their high school coursework in the mornings, to take dual credit classes in mechatronics at Central Piedmont Community College three afternoons a week and to work with a mentor at the company the rest of the time. By age twenty, Olympic high school students who continue in the Siemens apprenticeship program will have earned an associate’s degree and a journeyman’s certificate. Beyond that, they are guaranteed a job at Siemens. The minimum annual salary is $34,000; the average is $74,000. And, if they want to go on to pursue a degree from a four-year college or a graduate degree, Siemens will pay the tuition. This is very similar to the apprenticeship model in Germany, which was briefly considered by U.S. educators several decades ago and is once again gaining attention as a viable model to train students for well-paying, high-skilled jobs.

While apprenticeship is still rare in the U.S., primarily because of the high cost (or, as some would argue, investment) for businesses, a more prevalent U.S. model of partnership between high schools, community colleges and employers is CTE programs of study (POS). With funding from the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, FHI 360 has worked with a number of these POS partnerships across the country. We have been collecting data to learn about best practices and help secondary-postsecondary-industry teams improve collaboration.

The ultimate goal of POS is opening transparent career pathways for students so they understand from an early age what their options are and how to get there. For many young people, CTE programs in graphic design, information technology, forensic science, culinary arts, and “green” construction are exciting. High school courses in these subjects allow students to explore their interests and test their abilities, two essential parts of becoming college and career ready.

For some students who are struggling to see the relevance of school, CTE keeps them engaged and motivates them to stay in school. For others, CTE allows career exploration and development of marketable, 21st century skills that they can use in jobs while they pursue higher education. Most jobs in the U.S. now require at least some college, which is why President Obama has called for more investment in community colleges that can help everyone earn at least some postsecondary education. And while many CTE participants continue on to a four-year university, many are already in positions that require less than a baccalaureate and pay more than many jobs requiring a baccalaureate degree.

In the 10 years I’ve been working in CTE, I’ve yet to see a drawback. Schools win, students win, businesses win, the economy wins. Yet, schools and parents still express reluctance to allow young people to use part of their high school and community college years exploring careers. More research and advocacy for CTE is needed to demonstrate to the public that it is not the “dead-end vo-tech” of the past but may actually be the key to a brighter future.

With this post, FHI 360 begins a series of thought-provoking presentations on preparing primary and secondary school students for our increasingly competitive workforce. Patrick Montesano, Director, School and Community Services, shares our plans for the topics to be covered over the next few weeks.

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