How Refocusing CTE Programs Can Help Boost Students and Communities

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Did you know there were 10.9 million open jobs across the U.S. at the beginning of this school year? The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported a record-breaking 4 million Americans quit their jobs by the end of July. This exodus from the job market has affected almost every field and will no doubt have an impact on local economies in the coming months. In Nashville, a local hot dog restaurant known for its delectable dogs and as a tourist attraction closed because the owner couldn’t find anyone wanting to work. 

In spite of this shift in employment status being referred to as the ‘great resignation,’ some economists are calling this movement the ‘great renunciation’ because workers are ultimately leaving for more flexible options that allow for a better work-life balance. This news could be a silver lining for school districts across the country as they review their programs preparing for the post-COVID era, and career and technical programs can really benefit from a program review on the heels of the Carl D. Perkins Act reauthorization effective July 2019. 

Unless you are a high school teacher and perhaps even a career and technical education (CTE) teacher, you may not be familiar with the Carl D. Perkins Act. CTE was first acknowledged in 1963 when vocational education was identified as a program by federal law. The only problem with that recognition was the fact that it was unfunded. In the 1980s, a politician from Kentucky, who was a former teacher and lawyer, fought to fund vocational programs in schools in what became the Carl D. Perkins Act of 1984. The lack of funding prior to this legislation meant inequities in who would have access to vocational education, leaving high-poverty students out of the running for these programs. 

CTE programs can impact local economies. For example, the challenges of the housing market are not just a result of material and supply shortages but also a lack of talented labor. A trillion dollars is being invested into construction across our nation yet projects are slowed because of the lack of labor. As a nation, we are not producing the workers we need to support local economies. Small towns are becoming extinct because of this overwhelming challenge.  

Refocusing CTE Programs 

When ESEA was reauthorized, the focus was college and career but many read this as college only. A college degree is certainly a great option for many students but it may not be the best option for all students. And, there is nothing that says you can have the technical knowledge and pursue a college degree as well. 

CTE programs are offered in 16 career clusters designed to meet the needs of high-demand fields. These clusters are: 

  • Health science
  • Business
  • Sales
  • Finance
  • Information technology (IT)
  • Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)
  • Manufacturing
  • Logistics
  • Hospitality
  • Government
  • Law
  • Agriculture
  • Human services
  • Construction
  • Arts, audio/visual technology, and communications 

Schools overhauling their CTE programs are focusing on aligning their programs with the needs of the workforce in their areas, which could help the construction industry and other industries challenged to recruit employees. 

The focus on careers is beyond school districts. National Career Day was on September 24 and it promoted companies from around the nation in support of recruiting efforts. There are other days that will focus on different careers throughout the year and the entire month of November will focus on career development. 

Many jobs in our economy are designed for high schoolers and college students to take advantage of while they are going to school, while some are good fits for students who choose not to attend college. But it seems the great resignation didn’t just affect career folks, it has also affected pre-career folks, such as high schoolers and college students, and their desire to work. Introducing students to CTE opportunities in school not only offers them skill building but also gives them opportunities to put those skills to work through internships or externships. It should not be an ‘either’ choice when considering college or career, it should be yin and yang. 

Career exploration is something we have all but eliminated in our middle school programs but now may be the time to consider reintroducing it and helping students move into a pathway that prepares them for both college and career. A recent report from the Center for American Progress suggests that introducing CTE programs in middle school actually prepares students for more rigorous pathways in high school. 

A national model for this is the National Career Academies Coalition model, which develops career pathways within high schools for students to explore and are integrated with the academic requirements so that the learning is relevant and rigorous. The secret sauce to this model is partnerships with local industries to develop curriculum as well as offer internships and externships. Leveling the playing field is critical to give opportunities to students who are interested in CTE and boost economies because schools are graduating students who have viable employment skills. 

When the Carl D. Perkins Act was reauthorized, it put into place CTE requirements for states beginning in July 2019. Students who graduate from high school now must take a certain number of CTE courses in order to meet graduation requirements. This isn’t just an asset to a community, but the students benefit financially. Research indicates that 8 years after graduating from high school, students who earned CTE credits made more money than those who did not. And, a recent article from ETS suggests that CTE may be the very program to improve our economy post COVID. The power of CTE programs has also been shown to impact unemployment, which is a big win for any local economy. 

Upgrading Your CTE Program 

Now, are you ready to rethink CTE in your district? If so, here are some great sites to explore: 

Workforce GPS

CTE Research Network

National Career Academies Coalition

Perkins Collaborative Resources - USDE

Association for Career and Technical Education

Advance CTE

Get started by...

  1. Checking the guidelines of your state for CTE completers on your state department of education website. 
  2. Learn about academy programs accredited by the National Career Academy Coalition and schedule visits. 
  3. Reach out to your local chamber of commerce to schedule a meeting about partnerships with the industry leaders in your area. 
  4. Schedule a meeting with the local community college to discuss bridge programs and articulation agreements. 
  5. Check in with university continuing education and adult education programs to recruit people who are looking for a second career. 

Career and technical education is definitely a pathway every student should take advantage of to build skills that will not only benefit them personally for the rest of their lives but will also help local communities thrive. 

Dr. Kecia Ray

Dr. Ray's career includes designing technology within the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and directing technology research through Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Science Outreach programs. As a district administrator for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, she led the award-winning design, implementation, and evaluation of instructional technology programs, including instructional design for online and blended learning environments, redesigning physical learning environments, redefining school libraries, and establishing the first virtual high school to award the diploma. She leads K20Connect and other passion projects supporting K20 education around the world.