Career Education in the Digital Age

from Technology & Learning

What vocational education has to teach mainstream programs about 21st century learning.

Traditionally, the industrial arts wing of a typical American high school contrasted sharply with the rest of the school. Instead of silent hallways with classrooms of students sitting quietly at desks, industrial arts rooms bustled with noise and activity. Buzzing saws, blowtorches on metal, and the revving of car engines announced that "real world" work was in progress inside the machine-equipped walls of the woodworking, welding, and auto shops. Unlike their university-track counterparts, students in the vocational education program were preparing to go straight from graduation into the workforce. And this meant being serious about acquiring the job skills needed to immediately start earning a living.

But in the past 20 years, the bold line between higher ed—and career-bound students has not only blurred, but totally erased, according to experts like Gregory Kane. Connecticut's Supervisor for Technology Education, Engineering, and Agricultural Education, Kane says, integrating "trades" education into the comprehensive high school is no longer viable. With the rise of the service-and information-based economy, brought on by the digital age, there has been a diminishing call for those kinds of jobs. "The market is just not there anymore," he says. "And those jobs that were once straightforward and manual labor–based have become much more complex, requiring advanced skills that can't be taught in the 50-minute, once-a-week class."

That is not news to executives at San Rafael, California–based Autodesk, which created Computer Assisted Design software that revolutionized the drafting industry back in the early 1980s. Autodesk's Senior Director of Worldwide Education Programs Paul Mailhot explains how technology and global issues have affected engineering training: "Engineers are solving very different problems than they were 50 years ago. Now they're working with 3D digital models for space planning and structural analysis, and dealing with complicated heating and cooling systems. There's also a need for buildings to be more green and sustainable than buildings of old."

Today, voc ed has morphed into Career and Technology Education and has shifted from high schools to community colleges and regional Vocational Training Centers, which can provide the in-depth focus and the expensive, high-tech manufacturing equipment necessary to train students for the more demanding 21st-century workforce. And these academies incorporate creative "school" models, including flexible and part-time schedules, after-school programs, internships, and full-time enrollment at magnet schools or vocational centers.

The proliferation of these programs, centers, and academies is no accident. It is in response to a nearly two-decades-long cry for help from employers unable to find enough qualified U.S. graduates to staff their businesses. In fact, despite a burgeoning focus on career training, statistics continue to paint a dire picture.

The 2006 "Workforce Readiness Report Card," by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, surveyed 400 of the Fortune 500 companies, with results showing that even the best-educated university graduates are deficient in the applied skills necessary for the workplace. And a 2003 evaluation of 15-year-olds by the Program for International Student Assessment showed U.S. students ranking a dismal 24th out of 40 countries in the ability to apply mathematical concepts to real-world problems.

For CTE teachers, the concept of learning through application is a no-brainer. Says Connecticut's Kane, "I watched a student use trigonometry to graph trajectories while building a catapult that launched a ping pong ball to land in an 8-ounce cup. His teacher had told me he couldn't add two numbers together."

Pamela Phillips, a Dearborn, Michigan, high school business teacher and advisor for Business Professionals of America, is not surprised by findings that show U.S. students are weak in applied skills. She cites a lack of educator experience. "Students are deficient in applied skills as a result of the fact that the overwhelming majority of core area teachers went straight from college into teaching and have no real-world business experience," she says. "Business teachers, on the other hand, are vocationally certified with strong business backgrounds."

Formed in 1996, Project Lead the Way has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of middle and high school students who’ve gained problem- and project-based experience in digital electronics, computer integrated manufacturing, aerospace engineering, civil engineering, and architecture.

Companies Shoulder Training

As schools fail to prepare students for real-world vocations, companies find they are increasingly shouldering the responsibility for training. Cisco, for example, conducts extensive training of all its new hires as a matter of course. "Companies we regularly deal with say they have to ‘start from scratch' training most new grads," says Gene Longo, a Cisco Network Academy senior manager. Some of them outsource this training to stores like Best Buy, where students learn both IT skills and customer-relation "soft skills" as part of the store's Geek Squad.

Other businesses are rewarding hires willing to undergo additional training, usually at community colleges. "Companies like [jet manufacturer] Pratt & Whitney are bringing in academy-trained technicians and giving them $10,000 in stock as an incentive to go back to school so they'll have the skills to move up the chain into management," reports Kane. "These companies are looking for strong communication skills. But, beyond that, an in-depth understanding of science and math are crucial to enable employees to perform statistical quality-control operations and similar key analytical functions."

A National Focus

Though steps taken by individual employers such as Pratt & Whitney have helped draw attention to workforce-preparedness issues, concern about the overall domestic health of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields has been increasingly on the national radar.

Recognizing that STEM fields are pivotal to the country's infrastructure and continued global leadership, a range of political and industry leaders and groups have undertaken initiatives to reverse the declining enrollment rate in engineering college programs.

In "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," a 2007 study issued by the National Academies (of science, engineering, and medicine), the authors warn that "U.S. advantages in the marketplace and in science and technology have begun to erode." They predict "a disturbing mosaic" of a diminished economy eclipsed by China and threatened by other advancing nations by 2050 if we don't reverse domestic trends. The study goes on to say that though reports vary, "One estimate is that in 2004, China graduated 350,000 engineers, computer scientists, and information technologists with four-year degrees, while the U.S. graduated about 140,000."

Additional alarming figures come from the National Center for Educational Statistics, which places the national higher-education attrition rate in science and engineering fields at 50 percent.

In response to the broader STEM movement, and due to a personal frustration over a lack of qualified engineers for his New York–based industrial manufacturing company, Richard Liebich spearheaded Project Lead the Way in 1997. PLTW is a learning initiative designed to engage middle and high school students in the real-world challenges of civil, architectural, biotechnical, aerospace, and other fields of engineering, and to improve their chances for academic and career success.

PTLW's impact is already significant; more than 200,000 students are expected to complete coursework in the 2007-'08 school year. Results can also be seen in increased college attendance rates and a reduced minority achievement gap.

The Rise of "Multiflavored" Academies

In addition to Vocational Training Centers and initiatives such as PLTW, a new generation of academies in a variety of "flavors" is on the rise. Emblematic of these new academies is a "hybrid" approach of enrolling both college prep and non–college prep students. These academies also focus on teaching applied and 21st-century skills in both standard core curriculum and new-media instruction.

An example is Stamford, Connecticut's Academy of Information Technology and Engineering. The AITE curriculum requires students complete four years of foreign-language instruction and integrates international collaboration, virtual learning, and a range of digital applications such as architectural design, CAD technology, robotics, and digital electronics on which kids might choose to focus. According to Kane, such schools are great not just for learning applied skills, but also for exposing students to a variety of career options.

One particular category of the new academies that have sprung up is the digital media academy. Based on a two- year, post–high school model, these schools offer students professional-level training in areas, including animation and sound and video production, that allow them to fill job slots in the entertainment world and, increasingly, the business world. Jill Duffy, editor in chief of, a spinoff of Game Developer Magazine, reports there are nearly 500 schools and programs devoted to video game production registered on their Web site alone.

The Power of "Real"

The power of applied skills and a real-world focus to engage traditionally disenfranchised students—and often to give a lift to the larger community—is something savvy education leaders are beginning to recognize.

At the Hudson County Schools of Technology, in North Bergen, New Jersey, Douglas MacAulay, who teaches video production and history, says the motion-picture-techniques course he originally designed to "calm difficult students" in the school's alternative program has blossomed into "an up-to-date, career- minded, technology-based workshop that integrates a variety of project-based learning skills."

In Jefferson, Louisiana, principal Kristy Philippi designed and opened the Patrick F. Taylor Science and Technology Academy, a STEM school for grades 6–12 slated to aid in the region's economic development by increasing the number of skilled workers.

And in Washington, D.C., McKinley Technology High School principal Dan Gohl took a 100 percent minority, failing, inner city school and turned it into a model of career-and college-prep programs with three innovative graduation tracks: biomedical, broadcasting, and game development (for details, see "Game Plan," in the October 2005 issue of T&L).

International Trends

On the international front, national education organizations are partnering with companies like Certiport, Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, and Autodesk (see "Certification Academies") that offer certification programs in IT and specific software applications. Adobe is one such company, and its research in the UK, Australia, Canada, and other countries shows that Web site development, animation, and video creation and editing are key job skills on the immediate landscape. Findings also show that certification in applications such as Adobe's Photoshop and Flash give applicants a definite leg up in the hiring process. According to Colin Maxwell, of the Institute for Computing in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, education programs there have formed strong partnerships at the national level to align IT training with the country's goals and to be sure students possess "employability" skills in line with business expectations.

Indeed, the area of certification is exploding globally for numerous U.S.-based companies. They are finding especially high interest from overseas clients from countries where technology standards and a narrower job market make in-depth proficiency in particular digital tools crucial. Autodesk does business in 42 countries, with 60 percent of that business outside the U.S. And in some nations such as Malaysia, Mailhot says, certification in tools like Autodesk's Revit, Inventor, and CAD "are woven into the country's DNA" and mandatory for employment.

21st-century Skills

Beyond subject-area expertise, 21st-century skills are also embedded into training. Cisco relies to a great extent on a blended distance learning program, including videoconferencing and online assessment. Both Cisco and Autodesk also feature communities where participants can connect online. Says Mailhot, whose annual Autodesk University networking event draws more than 8,000 architects, educators, and businesses, "Employers now are looking for new hires who can collaborate, think critically, solve problems, and work as part of a global community."

A responsiveness to the needs of business has traditionally been the major defining characteristic of voc ed and career training, as opposed to the "purist" approach of the core curriculum. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, whose Innovation America initiative includes a call to establish regional councils and other networks to support business needs, believes it's time for us to "look beyond those old divisions."

Kane agrees. "There needs to be a market-driven model for what to teach. Let's look at what the student, the economy, and the country needs to succeed."

Legislating Change

Recent heartening news domestically comes in the form of a fresh bucket of funds for STEM research. In August, Congress authorized $43.3 billion for the next three years to the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act. The America COMPETES Act, introduced by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Harry Reid (D-NV), is a legislative response to "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," and Innovate America is a powerful step toward preserving the nation's "brainpower advantage."

Companies are also doing their part in the legislative arena. Cisco, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of its Networking Academy this month, marks the occasion by inviting an academy graduate and educator from each of the 50 states to a Washington, D.C., event with the mission of getting best practices in front of Congress.

More Challenges

Despite such hopeful signs as COMPETES, there remain significant barriers to systemic reform efforts such as the drive to integrate applied and career skills into core curriculum. Perhaps surprisingly, major obstacles prove to be well-meaning parents and community members and the often-staid policies of higher education.

"Parents have fond memories of the way things were when they were in school," says Kane. "I built a shoebox when I was in school so why shouldn't my son? School's not like that and society's not like that anymore."

Breaking down the wall of entrenched college and university practices is also a formidable challenge. Tech-savvy professors such as Iowa State University's Scott McLeod see issues such as outmoded publishing paradigms, a lack of familiarity with basic production software, and discomfort with blogging and other Web 2.0 functions as a serious culture clash between traditional higher ed practices and the new digital world. "What must a student think," says McLeod, "of a professor who's completely ignorant of the technologies they use everyday?"

The lack of articulation between high schools and higher education and an acknowledgement of the value of applied skills is another problem. Says Dearborn's Phillips, "Colleges refuse to recognize our Business English classes. In fact, many won't even accept an applicant's letter of recommendation from a business teacher."

Where Now?

From the broader perspective of school reform, a blended approach to education—which truly acknowledges and integrates applied workplace skills into traditional core curriculum—may be our destiny. This effort is sure to be an uphill battle, however, generating heated dialogue between champions of the "purist" and practical approaches. Perhaps the salient question is: Can we afford the continued purist approach to education, or is it critical that we "get real" and back our promise to students to deliver a 21st-century education? It's likely our national economic standing hangs in the balance.

Susan McLester is editor in chief of T&L.

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Sun Microsystems