“I learned the formula for success,” says Ian Solano, reflecting on what he gained from his high school career and technical education (CTE) classes.

Now a business and marketing junior at the University of Southern California, Ian articulately shares how the hands-on experience of completing real-world projects and presenting them to “clients” in high school taught him a process he’s applied to internships and his college coursework.

Solano is part of the changing face of high school vocational education. Since the days of the industrial arts, significant inroads have been forged in the breath and quality of career and technical education with tangible economic results.

According to a 2019 U.S. Department of Education data story, students focusing on CTE courses while in high school had higher median annual earnings eight years after their expected graduation dates than their non-CTE focused counterparts.

In this two-part series dedicated to National Career and Technical Education Month, education experts first discuss the evolution of high school CTE and its role in empowering students and supporting industry demands. Secondly, they’ll explore alternatives to address key challenges such as perception, access and inequity.

Disappearing division between college-prep and vocational education

Over 8.8 million secondary students participated in career and technical education during the 2017-18 school year. Some of these students will obtain a certification to enter the workforce with a dedicated skill during or immediately after high school. Others may take a year off to earn money working then continue a college education

Yet others, like Solano, graduate and immediately enter a two- or four-year college using their CTE to build real-world skills and strengthen their resumes.

The point is, students who participate in CTE leave high school with options that weren’t previously available to them. That’s a huge shift from the perspective of vocational education as a less-desirable alternative for students who struggled with academics which was prevalent historically.

Rigorous academics is an integral component of each pathways course, explains Steve DeWitt, deputy executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). Federal law also requires that each pathway culminates in a post-secondary certification.

Amanda Fernandez, a CTE teacher at Wilson High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, confirms, “We’re no longer seeing the pronounced division between academic and technical tracks that many of us grew up with.”

She teaches Microsoft certificate programs as well as financial literacy and business entrepreneurship courses. Emphasis on career and college readiness underlies the approach of both CTE and academic teachers.

“We work hand in hand to prepare students for the future.”

Image: Seacoast School of Technology

Industry resources power up today’s CTE programs

High-quality CTE programs help fill workforce demand with enthusiastic and qualified employees. So, it’s no surprise that industry is eager to partner with schools.

For example, District 214 in Chicago’s northwest suburbs boasts 1,000 partnerships with area businesses that facilitate internships, micro-internships, site visits, job shadows and mentoring for students. Like others across the nation, the district adopted a career pathways approach in its six high schools.

Likewise, industry and post-secondary partners have a strong voice in how programs develop at the Seacoast School of Technology in New Hampshire, says Assistant Principal Pamela Carr.

“They’ll talk about shifts in their industry like a new machine that they're using that students need to be versed on. If it’s not feasible to give students direct access to practice on it in our CTE center, at least they’ll have the knowledge that the machine they’re currently using is phasing out,” explains Carr.

“Partners also help students get actual work-based learning opportunities within the industry.”

Industry alliances extend beyond businesses. Professional and trade associations are a tremendous resource for CTE programs, explains Heather Wetzler, co-founder of Cue Career, a career exploration and workforce development platform that provides an easy way to access professional and trade associations in several industries.

“Many associations set aside money for student outreach to fill the workforce pipeline in their industry often translating into free student membership, contests, internships, scholarship opportunities and the like,” says Wetzler.

Along with information on prerequisites needed for distinct careers within each field, students can tap knowledge and experience from a diverse pool of members. Since they work for a large variety of employers not just the large corporations that typically grant money to CTE, these professionals can provide perspective on different small and medium-sized businesses (SME) where the majority of jobs are found.

Less risky and costly time to explore career passion

The underlying purpose of connecting students with resources is to help hone in on a pathway that’s in line with their passion.

“We really work to design the coursework so students can explore and figure it out here, where the stakes are lower,” says Megan Knight, Illinois District 214 director of academic programs and pathways. “Our goal is to help them affirm what they like to do.”

The flipside, discovering what they don’t like to do, has equal value, she adds. School counselors regularly check in to make sure students are happy with their choice and understand that it’s okay to change pathways.

Fernandez emphasizes the importance of carefully listening to students to understand what they love to do, so you can introduce appropriate options.

Ian Solano knew that storytelling needed to be part of his future. Now, he gets to develop marketing campaigns that tell the story of his clients and their products.