Reframing how we talk about career and technical education

07/10/2017 12:24 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2017

As the White House shines a spotlight on workforce development to address the skills gap, the German model of apprenticeships has been appropriately offered as the gold standard from which the United States can learn. Every year in Germany, close to a million students participate in the nation’s dual system of education. Programs combine classroom with on-the-job training and a clear pathway to higher education and a quality job, contributing to Germany’s low youth unemployment rate and its leadership in advanced manufacturing.

But even if the United States could create our own version of the dual system today, we would still be at a relative disadvantage due to something much more fundamental: the stigma attached to vocational education, or what the U.S. calls career technical education (CTE). That is the first hurdle to address.

America’s CTE system provides many students with similar benefits to that of the German program. It enables students to enhance their core high school academic courses with technical, real world skills that prepare them for the future. In other words, CTE is a powerful tool already addressing the skills gap. It can open millions more doors into the middle class and is an important part of the prescription to what ails us today.

But one disadvantage CTE has compared to the dual system is that it isn’t fully embraced by students and parents, or they simply aren’t aware of it. In Germany, the dual system is as prestigious as university. In the U.S., CTE is often mischaracterized as an inferior educational pathway to college prep. For some time now, CTE enrollment rates have been flat.

Meanwhile, the benefits that CTE offers students only become clearer. CTE provides an excellent starting point for young people to explore their passions and learn about careers in growing, well-paying fields such as advanced manufacturing, information technology, energy and healthcare. These so-called middle-skill positions represent half of all job openings anticipated through 2022. They require more than a high school education, yet less than a four-year degree, and usually a strong technical skill set.

To get serious about turning the page in the U.S., we should get familiar with the results from a recent national survey by Advance CTE.

The research reaffirmed what all students considering CTE would want to know most: students and their parents are extremely pleased with their educational outcomes.

About nine in 10 CTE parents were satisfied with their children’s opportunities to explore different careers and learn real-world skills. In contrast, only half of parents of non-CTE students felt the same way.

Additionally, CTE parents and students are twice as likely to be very satisfied with their overall school experience than parents and students not involved in CTE.

Another important insight is that how we talk about CTE — and how we promote it — really matters. It was evident from the survey that much of CTE’s stigma is due to lack of awareness about what these programs really offer, and how they fit within the traditional high school experience. Will they have to transfer schools and lose friends? Will they have to give up sports, extracurricular activities or traditional academic courses?

More often than not, they won’t. In fact, a significant part of CTE’s branding challenge is helping more parents and students see that CTE isn’t an alternative to a traditional education at all — it’s a complement, offering an additional ticket to economic security and educational advancement.

Nearly all of the students and parents who participated in the survey expressed that college remains a priority. They also hoped, however, that high school would cultivate a passion for a career field, and CTE provides the perfect vehicle for that exploration.

When we demean CTE, we fail to show young people all of the pathways to fulfilling careers and their college education, including many that are inexpensive and debt-free. Some CTE programs, for instance, enable students to earn up to an associates degree before they graduate with their high school diploma.

This is why parents and students surveyed said that what CTE programs really need right now are champions. Soon-to-be high school students need to hear how CTE works and that it does work — almost half of all prospective CTE students surveyed wanted to hear this directly from guidance counselors.

So let’s stop pitting CTE against so-called traditional education as either/or. Instead, let’s ensure all quality educational choices that lead to college and promising careers are on the table. For the United States to blaze its own path on workforce development initiatives, CTE will have to succeed too. Ultimately, that starts not only with discussions in Washington, but by reframing the discussion at home and in schools.

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