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CTE: A Working Education

Career and technical education has changed with the times, thanks to technology and renewed interest from education leaders.

Today’s career and technical education (CTE) looks a lot different from the vocational ed of old. While CTE still includes trades such as welding and nursing, it has expanded to include a greater emphasis on basic education components, as well as self-directed programs that help non-traditional students find their passion, while keeping up with a quickly changing workforce. 

Students used to study mechanics in auto shop, but today’s auto manufacturing plants have few mechanics and lots of computers. To keep current, today’s CTE students are trained as computer technicians and can choose to focus on such advanced technologies as fuel cell or electric car design.

“Most of the changes we’re seeing echo trends in the broader education and workforce development realm,” said Alisha Hyslop, director of public policy at the Association of Career and Technical Education (CTE). “In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a resurgence of interest from policymakers, parents and the broad range of stakeholders, and a lot of recognition of the value of CTE, both academically and in the labor market.” 

The very definition of CTE continues to change with workforce demands. It strives to prepare students to be college- and career-ready by providing core academic skills, as well as technical, job-specific skills. Through 16 career clusters, students can pursue careers as diverse as information technology, agriculture, food, natural resources, law, public safety and security. 

Whatever the career focus a student chooses, opportunities for CTE are available at high schools and technical schools, and in higher education. The outcomes are promising for both students and businesses. Postsecondary CTE students achieve significantly higher earnings than those who majored in academic fields, according to the 2014 National Assessment of CTE Final Report

Meanwhile, demand for CTE grads outstrips supply. The Bayer Corporation’s Facts of Science Education report pointed out that almost half of talent recruiters at Fortune 1000 companies say they have trouble finding qualified candidates with two-year STEM degrees. 

Although CTE policy stalled at the federal level with an attempted reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, ACTE just released its annual report, which shows states continue to invest in CTE and have focused on encouraging and incentivizing industry partnerships. 

“Our school has 11 campuses and we are growing every year,” said Gina Riggs, emergency medical services (EMS) director at the Kiamichi Technology Center in Poteau, Okla. “Anything in the health sciences is doing really well. We don’t have enough seats.”

This is due, in part, to expanded opportunities for careers, which allow more flexibility and seamless transitions between education and workplace for adults or students who need to earn money right away, according to Riggs.

For instance, a student can get a certificate and immediately begin working in emergency medical services. While working, that student can continue to attend community college or start another certificate. Programs such as this allow students to continue to advance their education without taking out loans or leaving the workplace. 

Additionally, new programs that demonstrate the value of education are appealing to some students who may have struggled in high school. Kiamichi’s Environmental and Spatial Technology (EAST) program, which promotes student-driven community service projects, allows students to create their own curriculum and study what they’re passionate about while meeting certain criteria. “The focus is on self-improvement, growth and critical thinking,” said Riggs. “EAST prepares them to work on special projects in their community.” For instance, one student worked with 3-D printing for autistic children.  

Responding to specific local labor needs is another way that CTE stays relevant. The Metro Technology Center in Oklahoma City started an aviation program in response to Boeing’s request for aviation technicians. 

Integrating technology with education keeps CTE growing. Griggs cites Kiamichi’s disaster response and EMS training simulator as one example. The 48-foot mobile trailer brings training directly to community health-care providers. The unit includes life-size mannequins capable of breathing, talking, crying, seizing and reacting to health-care provider interventions, allowing emergency medical personnel to practice their critical thinking reactions and skills in a non-threatening environment. 

John Miller, acting president at Williston State College in North Dakota, said Williston’s virtual welding program provides opportunities their students wouldn’t otherwise have. Distance students can take advantage of learning online, and so can students who are interested in welding, but are a little shy about using the actual welding unit. 

“In our case, the virtual welders we have are another teaching tool to help our instructor better assist his students,” he said. “And they are certainly a program enhancement.”

All of this adds up to a positive future for what was once an uninspiring career choice. “CTE is really a hidden gem. If parents knew what it can do for their students, they would push them to take CTE classes so they could graduate with some skills,” said Riggs. “We’re not the same old vo-tech system. We’re now the technical education system that helps technology and industry, as well as helping kids succeed in life.”