The Future of Career Technical Education (CTE): What Educators Need to Know

career technical education
(Image credit: Unsplash: thisisengineering raeng)

Career technical education (CTE) is currently receiving increased attention as it is expected to play a key role in the recovery from the pandemic. New skills, approaches, and funding introduced over the past year are helping to drive expansion of programs as many employers continue to struggle to find qualified workers.

Shortly after his confirmation, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona posted an open letter to U.S. students and their families in regard to his plan for education. In it, he suggests that a heavy focus on CTE will be an essential part of what’s next in education. 

Cardona is a product of a CTE, and has been a big proponent of these programs. He went to H.C. Wilcox Technical High School in his hometown of Meriden, Connecticut, and initially studied to become an automotive mechanic. He eventually changed focus and decided to go to college instead, pursuing teaching. Cardona wants to make sure all students have similar flexibility in choosing their career paths. 

“One of the things I want to guard against is tracking or saying to an eighth grader, ‘You’re college-bound,’ ‘You’re not that’—that to me perpetuates inequities,” he told Central Connecticut State University graduates in 2019. “We have a lot of students sitting in our high schools today who need hands-on experiences, who want to build things, who want to develop things, who want to manufacture, who want to go into IT, go into business. And oftentimes, we have students who don’t take those opportunities, because they’re going to be less likely to be looked at by colleges.” 

College and Career Readiness 

CTE advocates welcome Cardona’s focus and commitment to getting students prepared for life beyond K-12.

“I think we've seen that there is this huge interest in CTE and we've heard CTE being talked about at the national level in a way that it really hasn't been before,” says Meredith Hills, Senior Policy Associate for Advance CTE. “And having Secretary Cardona -- he understands it, he gets it.”

“In regard to CTE, for a long time, we've talked about college or career ready -- we want it to be college and career ready,” says Kimberly A. Green, Executive Director of Advance CTE. “The Secretary of Education actually has lived that college and career, and I’m hoping that he will be able to use both his positioning as well as opportunities that are presented to the department to really solidify the college and career readiness, because that's what CTE is.” 

Green also anticipates the Cardona-led education department to focus on equity in regard to CTE, and to have a renewed emphasis on community colleges. “The recent [COVID relief measures] include a package of investment and infrastructure, this time on human capital,” she says. “That potentially includes a focus on opening up access to post-secondary education through free community colleges.” 

What's really important for CTE leaders is making sure they're at the table when decisions about that funding are being made, says Alisha Hyslop, Senior Director of Public Policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). 

“We need to make sure that some of the resources coming down from the federal government actually get into building and expanding programs and support wrap-arounds,” Hyslop says. “For example, there's a huge number of laid-off workers from the hospitality industry who need to get back to work and how the role that community technical colleges can play in that is going to be critical.”

CTE Without Borders 

Part of boosting CTE is getting school districts to make a deeper commitment to programs, courses, and resources.

“CTE should be offered to students across their educational career, not as an add-on in the last semester of your senior year,” says Hyslop. “Work-based learning shouldn't be just a one-time, one day per year type of experience. You need a work-based learning continuum. It starts with light touch things, such as guest speakers or watching videos of real employers, and then maybe it progresses in intensity to job shadowing or mentoring, and then into more rigorous internships or long-term projects with employers.” 

“We have a vision of CTE without limits,” says Green. “That's really about making sure that any learner, every learner who wants to participate in CTE, has full access and support.”

For example, as a result of the pandemic, CTE opportunities and connections are now being forged in new ways. “You can be in Connecticut and talk to a professional in California, Montana, Hong Kong, Paris, wherever, and you can have virtual mentorship or do a virtual tour,” says Green. “No matter where they live, a student should be able to access the education program that connects to their talents, their passion, and their interests.’”

In rural regions that didn't have geographic access to hands-on learning opportunities on a daily basis, virtual CTE was a necessity before the pandemic, says Mills. “Continuing to create those opportunities, be it fully virtual or through some kind of hybrid model, will be vital in expanding access to high-quality CTE in a really equitable way,” she says.

Alignment with business and industry partners can also help students see pathways, which should be connected all through the education spectrum. “If you can get students a jumpstart on post-secondary education while they're in high school or, at minimum, connect a high school program with the post-secondary program so that students aren't having to start over when they get to post-secondary, that's definitely a best practice,” says Hyslop.

Work-based learning for students is also getting a lot of attention, as students try to balance financial and family challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.

“If you are from a low-income family and you are working to contribute to your family's household, you're faced with this kind of false choice of connecting to free work-based learning experiences versus actually doing work that will help to contribute to your family,” says Green. CTE leaders need to connect the dots and help people get credentials that result in higher-paying jobs, whether that is in high school or in post-secondary education. 

Districts have also been investing stimulus funds into rapid re-skilling programs and short-term credentialing programs to support people to pivot when the economy changes. These types of programs are largely in use in the adult space right now, but could be considered to boost equitable opportunities for students, says Green.

CTE’s Current Path 

Going forward, making CTE a foundational piece to education and exposing learners to the world of options before them will be critical. “As is giving them those real-world experiences to decide and affirm, if this is the right choice for them,” says Green. “It's empowering.”

And as the U.S. and the world recovers from the pandemic, the CTE community is in a prime position to play an important role, says Hyslop. “It's hard to plan five years down the road, like you might have done a strategic plan, but we're encouraging educators to continue to do that long-term goal setting but also to be willing to make shifts and changes in the short term to meet students where they are and meet employers where they are, and be flexible in responding to the current dynamic.” 

Educators also need to overcome instincts to cut back on programs such as CTE when trying to marshal resources to deal with learning loss. “I've seen this happen in previous times we've that had disruptions -- although obviously nothing to this scale -- that there will be this kind of force hierarchy of like, ‘Oh, we've got to get the test scores up so we can only double down on the academics in the way that we've always taught them,’” says Green. “Subjects such as CTE are important complements that add relevance to the academics and actually help students improve.”

Ray Bendici is the Managing Editor of Tech & Learning and Tech & Learning University. He is an award-winning journalist/editor, with more than 20 years of experience, including a specific focus on education.