Future Ready

Students working on cars

Career and technical education gets a 21st century reboot

Michelle Healy

Students in Janet Harris’ digital media, video editing, and television broadcasting classes are making a name for themselves with an online broadcast service. They produce, direct, and record more than 50 live programs (mostly sports, but also leadership and community service activities) each year for Deer Creek High School in Edmond, Oklahoma.

Fans include students and family members who turn to the student-run service (known as AntlerVision) when they can’t attend live campus events.

“It’s a great service to the school community,” and through it, “my students are being prepared for the workforce and they’re getting jobs like crazy,” says Harris. She teaches the course at Deer Creek for Francis Tuttle Technology Center, the regional career and technology education (CTE) school.

Among those students is Chris White, 17, one of several hired by OKPreps, a Tulsa-based sports broadcasting company, to shoot video and provide coverage during a 900-game national youth basketball championship in Dallas.

White, who says his real passion is computers, turned a summer internship at OKPreps into a paid, part-time job programming and coding software used for the company’s streaming platform.

“I really like making videos, which is producing good content, so I put a lot of time into it,” says the 11th-grader, an executive producer on this year’s AntlerVision staff. But instead of a career behind a camera or calling the shots at ESPN someday, he’s contemplating a future in computer technology after college. He credits career tech with putting him on this path.

“The job in broadcast (helped) me learn that there’s a whole range of things you can build software for,” he says. “I love building software that works with media.”

The Skills Gap

Giving students such hands-on experiences where they can put into context what they learn in the studio, workshop, lab, and classroom, while also developing employability skills suited for the global economy and the digital age, is key to high-quality CTE, says Sean Lynch, a spokesman for the Association of Career and Technical Education.

Lynch and other career-tech advocates say that over the past 30 years, this educational model has evolved considerably from the days of focusing solely on vocational training for various trades to preparing students for success in college and careers and giving them the foundation to further their education later.

Driving this transformation? “More and more business and industry leaders pointing to a disconnect in available positions and qualified professionals available to fill them,” commonly referred to as the skills gap, says Lynch. “And they’re looking to CTE programs to partner with to provide (the needed) learning opportunities earlier and to raise awareness that these jobs are out there.”

From national, state, and local government levels to various education and professional groups, “there has been a concerted effort to really put career and technical education more in the 21st rather than in the mid-20th century,” says James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education.

“When you think about college and career readiness, which is the current mantra in education circles, the career readiness piece screams for career and technical education.”

Among those advocating the benefits of high-quality CTE: former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has characterized CTE programs as “helping to connect students with the high-demand science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) -- where so many good jobs are waiting.”

21st Century Reboots

That’s the thinking in Utah, where the State Office of Education launched the new Utah Aerospace Pathways program in September. The pilot program, currently offered to students in several high schools in the Granite and Davis school districts, aims to increase the workforce building precision components for the airline industry, the military, and space exploration.

Participants will earn a certificate in aerospace manufacturing, complete a paid internship, and become eligible for a job at one of six industry partners: Boeing, Harris, Hexcel, Hill Air Force Base, Janicki, and Orbital ATK. They also can receive tuition reimbursement for college after a year of employment.

The companies joined together to propose the program to state economic development officials to address the region’s need for more skilled aerospace workers, says Doug Livingston, technology and engineering education specialist for the Utah State Office of Education.

“They were essentially competing for the same employees and there just are not enough” to meet current and anticipated workforce demands, he says.

At Harford Technical High School in Bel Air, Maryland, the former computer networking and technology program has gotten a 21st century reboot into a cybersecurity program. Students study malware, viruses, and data security, along with ethics and moral philosophy in a digital age, en route to earning a range of industry-level certifications while still in high school.

Because of the job market, “we have not only increased the certifications, but also the rigor of the course,” says Harford Principal Charles Hagan. “And we’re trying to teach them not only what to do and how to do it, but also the ethics part of it.”

STEM Boost

With the growing importance of STEM education to high-demand job opportunities, New Jersey’s Camden County Technical Schools (CCTS) have boosted their STEM-related career options to include programs in pre-engineering, green engineering, information technology, and environmental science.

With sponsorship and engineering support from the Campbell Soup Company (its world headquarters just minutes away), Camden County Technical Schools’ pre-engineering program participates in the nation-wide FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition, one of several national competitions designed to let CTE students in various career pathways -- from engineering to entrepreneurship and business to skilled trades -- display their knowledge and know-how.

However, “students from just about every career area on campus” contribute to the Camden County robotics entry, says Marianne Cappello, CTE supervisor.

For last year’s competition, medical arts students developed a safety and hazard mitigation plan; business technology students created a cost analysis report; carpentry students constructed a practice field for testing the robot; and cosmetology students handled promotions and team support, to name just a few of the departmental contributors. Even the team’s teacher-coaches (hailing from the engineering, masonry, and automotive technology departments) reflected the cross-curricular approach to the effort.

College-Bound CTE

Although students enrolled in CTE programs often earn certificates and industry-recognized credentials while still in high school, they are increasingly participating in dual or concurrent enrollment programs that allow them to take college-level courses either at their school or on a nearby college campus and earn credit.

Students at Camden County Technical Schools, for example, can apply to earn dual credit with Camden County College, an opportunity that gets them a head start on college while saving money because the tuition is waived for high school students, says Cappello.

And it’s an outdated notion that CTE is not suited for the needs of college-bound students, she says, noting that Camden County, like similar high-quality programs, gives students an invaluable look at their chosen career path along with access to challenging college prep and core academic classes.

“There’s no other opportunity in a public high school where students can get the hands-on training and in-depth knowledge” about what it’s like to be a carpenter, a chef, or a future engineer, says Cappello.

To help drive that lesson home, sophomores in the pre-engineering program at Francis Tuttle, for example, take a principles of engineering class “to learn about the different phases of engineering and the rigor it takes to accomplish that,” says Superintendent Thomas Friedemann.

The center’s Pre-Engineering, Biosciences and Medicine, and Computer Science Academies “are as rigorous as any college prep high school you could go to,” says Friedemann. “That’s something the old ‘Vo Tech’ system would never have gotten involved with.”

In Indiana, the South Bend Community School Corporation is working to extend the early college concept to CTE students studying skilled professions. In a program launched in 2014, the district allows high school juniors in the automotive services program to attend Ivy Tech Community College and work toward a technical certification while also earning dual credit for college-level math and language arts classes that are taught at their home school, all at no cost.

At the end of the program, students can earn the technical certificate and their high school diploma, and have 37 dual credits, explains Laura Marzotto, CTE director.

“We have a high need for automotive workers in our region, so this feeds right into the local need,” she says.

It also encourages students who might otherwise have been satisfied to simply take “a couple of automotive classes” to work harder in their language arts and math classes because completing them is tied to getting the technical certificate. “If we can offer them more (education) in high school and get them out into the work force or into college, that’s our goal,” says Marzotto.

Filling the Skills Gap

A similar early college initiative, also aimed at meeting local employment needs, targets students in the fire science program. It is a combined effort among the school district, the community college, and the South Bend Fire Department. Graduates earn community college credits, high school credits, HAZMAT, EMT, and fire-fighting industry certifications, and participate in a fire department-taught training program.

Graduates interested in joining the fire department “will still have to apply, like everyone else, and undergo more training,” says Marzotto, “but they’ll come in highly recommended if they do well in the program.”

Plans are in the works to add three to four new CTE early college programs in the next year or so to help fill the skills gap, and the hope is that employers will help these students continue their education during the course of their careers, she says, “because you can’t have enough today.”


Michelle Healy (mhealy@nsba.org) is a staff writer for American School Board Journal.

Go to top