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Evolving CTE Programs Can Help Bridge the Skills Gap

What comes to mind when you hear the words “career and technical education”? Although familiar to most education professionals, those words don’t always ring a bell with others. Many students and parents, for example, are more familiar with terms like “vocational-technical program” or “trade school.”

Today’s career and technical education (more commonly referred to as “CTE”) isn’t your father’s “vocational-technical program” or your great-great-grandfather’s “trade school” either. Instead, it’s a modern, multifaceted, interdisciplinary approach to career preparation that holds the promise of bridging the skills gap responsible for the modern workforce crisis facing industries worldwide.

Old Roots

Hammer and Anvil Graphic for CTE ArticleEducation focused on teaching hands-on skills is nothing new. Long before the first attempts at structured learning in a group setting, people passed relevant knowledge and skills directly from one person to another.

Over time, it became clear that teaching groups of students had its advantages over an individual, piecemeal approach. Modern CTE programs can trace their history back to the late 19th century, when the first manual training school was established in Missouri in 1879 and the first trade school opened in New York in 1881.

Progress continued early in the 20th century. Even before education became compulsory in every state, the first federal law granting funding for vocational education was enacted in 1917. In the wake of World War I, “trade schools” began popping up to train young men returning from the war.

Unfortunately, these early “trade schools” were primarily intended for students who weren’t considered college material because of their financial or social status. With minimal academic instruction, programs focused on teaching the skills needed to find a job. Even the buildings housing these programs tended to resemble the factories and warehouses where their students would eventually work.

Male Student in Auto Repair ClassShifting Focus

After World War II, the United States found itself waging a new Cold War with the Soviet Union. As the countries raced to explore space and develop more sophisticated weapons, the U.S. began to focus more and more on science and technology.

CTE terminology made a corresponding shift from “trade schools” to “vocational-technical schools.” Curriculum still focused on hands-on skills, but instructors increasingly taught the theory behind the skills students were learning.

A decades-long decline in interest in CTE programs began in the 1980s. Most of these programs still struggled from significant image issues, such as people believing they were only meant to prepare students for low-pay, entry-level factory jobs. Unfortunately, for many programs, those impressions weren’t far off the mark.

Fast ForwardMale high school student working with Pegasus robot

Over the course of the past decade, CTE programs have experienced a Renaissance of sorts. Today, CTE sits firmly at the intersection of education, workforce development, and economic growth. Yet, despite its advances, modern CTE still suffers from outdated perceptions of low-quality programs from the past.

The reality of modern CTE programs, though, could not be more different than its predecessors. In fact, modern CTE is becoming more mainstream. Today, approximately 88% of high school students take at least one CTE course, and about 20% of high school students concentrate on a specific career field by following an intentional sequence of CTE courses.

Today’s modern CTE system serves nearly 13 million secondary and post-secondary learners. And it’s working: the graduation rate of CTE students across the nation varies between 90-94%, which is about 10-15% higher than the national average.

More Than Jobs Training

The “trade school” and “vocational-technical” programs of the past tended to focus primarily on just the skills needed to perform one particular job. It’s no wonder that people thought of these programs as mainly “jobs training.”

Modern CTE, on the other hand, focuses on programs of study that encompass entire fields, allowing students to explore multiple career options to determine what matches with their passions. The wide variety of fields associated with modern CTE include: advanced manufacturing, information technology, environmental science, biotechnology, healthcare, construction, transportation, distribution, logistics, communications, and many more!

To ensure that today’s CTE students are learning the skills they will need now and into the future, modern CTE programs routinely partner with industry to design programs that will produce highly-skilled workers ready to make an impact in the workplace. Unlike the limited skills of the past, today’s sought-after skills are primarily highly-advanced technical and technological skills that require some form of post-secondary education beyond high school.

Student standing at crossroads between school and workNo Longer College vs. Career

The CTE programs of the distant past tended to focus on college and career as separate, competing paths. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case. College and career are now viewed as complementary and intertwined, and modern CTE points students toward both.

Modern CTE programs teach real-world skills applicable in a wide variety of careers. Students can explore various career options within a particular field of interest, and today’s CTE programs link secondary and post-secondary education in a way that gives students the guidance they need to pursue a career they’re passionate about with focus and purpose.

Career PreparationMale and Female Multiracial College Students Walking to Class

In fact, most modern CTE students do go to college. Approximately 78% of students concentrating in CTE courses enroll in post-secondary education full-time immediately after graduating. About 62% of those students plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree or higher, and half of all CTE concentrators go on to earn some type of post-secondary credential or certificate.

Modern CTE can give students heading to college a leg up on their competition. Dual enrollment opportunities abound, and students taking advantage of these options can reduce both the cost of college and the time it takes to complete a degree.

Of course, not all good career paths require post-secondary education. That’s why modern CTE focuses on career preparation, not just college preparation. If a particular career path calls for an industry-standard certification and an apprenticeship, modern CTE will guide students down that path toward a rewarding career with little or no college debt.

Graphic of Male and Female Multiracial Students with Laptops and Smartphones with images of high-tech career options on wall behind themReady for What Comes Next

“Kids these days!” That’s the familiar refrain that begins many modern lamentations about the number of woefully-unprepared students leaving school with few skills and little ability to make a difference in the workplace.

That’s certainly not the case with the vast majority of modern CTE students, who learn a wide variety of real-world knowledge and hands-on skills. Rigorous technical CTE coursework reinforces core academic work, leading to better-prepared, well-rounded students.

Modern CTE offers students many paths to successful careers. Some students will develop hands-on skills that lead to industry-standard certifications that allow them to enter good jobs immediately upon graduation. Others may pursue a variety of dual enrollment courses, building up credits toward a post-secondary credential at a community or technical college or a university.

Whatever path they choose, modern CTE students can take advantage of a variety of work-based learning experiences that will build their employability skills for the future workplace. Examples of these unique opportunities include internships, apprenticeships, mentorships, networking opportunities, and hands-on projects with local industry.

A Promising FutureMale high school students working on Pegasus robot at robotics camp

Modern CTE programs are much more robust than they’ve ever been in the past, with a broader focus across more fields and deeper technical and academic training aligned with the needs of today’s businesses. Today, CTE can begin in elementary school, extend through middle and high school, and carry on into post-secondary education at community colleges, universities, and specialized training opportunities, such as workforce development programs.

Many of today’s students — digital natives who grew up in a world full of technology — have a natural affinity for CTE programs that focus on advanced technologies and their application in the modern workplace. After all, who doesn’t like to play with robots in impressive technology labs full of industrial-grade equipment?

With all of the positive achievements that characterize modern CTE, the outdated perceptions linking CTE to low-quality programs of the past are beginning to change, albeit very slowly. As the resurgence in interest in CTE that has marked the last decade continues to grow, more and more students — not to mention parents, schools, businesses, industry groups, and governmental organizations — will begin to recognize how modern CTE can bridge the skills gap that continues to hamper industries worldwide.

Female Student Working on Wiring for Pegasus robot and tabletop mechatronics system as part of Amatrol robotics campQuality Is the Top Priority

Modern CTE programs are consistently proving that they can bridge skills gaps and strengthen the talent pipeline for today’s businesses. Likewise, increasing numbers of today’s CTE students are experiencing college success and career satisfaction.

To capitalize on these successes and finally overcome the image problems that stem from the past, quality must remain the top priority of modern CTE. No amount of image overhaul will put a shine on poor CTE programs that don’t fulfill their promises. Instead, only the highest quality CTE programs will make an impact and change people’s minds.

How can modern CTE programs prioritize quality? In today’s extremely tight job market made worse by a growing skills gap problem, CTE programs must align their offerings with the in-demand skills and roles industry will need in the short- and long-term future. Quality also means teaching industry-relevant, hands-on skills while providing actual experience with real-world equipment.

Changes AheadMale Factory Technician with Augmented Reality Goggles Working on Yellow Robot Arm with Virtual Screens in front of him

Which skills should high-quality CTE programs focus on? Experts agree that advanced technical and technological skills top the list of most-wanted skills needed today and into the foreseeable future.

Indeed, the workplace of the future will be impacted greatly by advanced technologies, such as automation and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). For example, industry estimates put the number of needed workers in cybersecurity at nearly 2 million worldwide by 2022.

The anticipated impact of these new technologies is clear. By 2020, about 65% of jobs will require education and training beyond high school (evenly split between jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree vs. those requiring an associate degree or some college).

Oddly enough, these jobs are referred to as “middle skill” jobs, despite the fact that many require highly-advanced technical skills. Fortunately, these are exactly the type of jobs modern CTE programs prepare students for.

One Male and Two Female Students Working on Amatrol's Smart Factory Mechatronics SystemHow Amatrol Can Help

Educational institutions don’t need to tackle the task of developing high-quality CTE programs alone. After more than three decades designing and manufacturing state-of-the-art training systems, Amatrol remains the world’s leader in skills-based, interactive technical learning.

Our comprehensive learning solutions range from introducing high school students to emerging technologies to teaching hands-on skills in the latest, highly-sophisticated smart factory systems. What truly sets Amatrol apart is its dedication to providing comprehensive training solutions that integrate in-depth multimedia eLearning curriculum with hands-on trainers that teach relevant skills with real-world industrial components.

Visit Amatrol online to learn how you can leverage its technical training expertise to create a high-quality CTE program that will prepare students for the workplace of the future. Together, we can bridge the skills gap and transform the global workforce one life at a time.

 

About Duane Bolin
Duane Bolin is a former curriculum developer and education specialist. He is currently a Marketing Content Developer for Amatrol, Inc. Learn more about Amatrol and its technical training solutions, including eLearning, here and connect with Duane on Amatrol’s Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube pages.

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