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How educators can use career technical education to create opportunities for youth

Published: April 25, 2023

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    74% of employers report a persistent mismatch between the skills they need and the skills workers have.

    The United States is facing a projected deficit of 6.5 million skilled workers over the next decade.

    In the cybersecurity field alone 3.4 million skilled professionals are currently needed globally– a skills gap that has more than doubled since 2019. 

    In short: The skills gap is real, and the pandemic has made it worse. 

    So why are we still sending young people into the workforce with nothing more than a classical education? It’s a one-size-fits-all solution in a world that’s increasingly (and thankfully!) anything but. 

    Enter Career Technical Education.

    Career Technical Education (CTE) is a learning framework designed to give students their choice of occupational career pathways to pursue as a part of both their secondary and post-secondary learning to better prepare them for the workforce.

    But what is CTE and how can it help address the skills gap in the U.S.?

    What is career technical education?

    An advertising industry expert showing students advertising examples during a Work ED career technical education program.Career technical education in action: these high school students are learning on-the-job skills at an advertising agency. Copyright Work ED.

    At the highest level, career technical education (CTE) is a set of educational pathways that prepare students for careers in diverse practical fields—from healthcare to business management to IT. 

    CTE programs offer a blend of academic and technical training that equips students with the skills and knowledge required to succeed in today's workforce.

    What are some examples of career and technical education?

    A teacher leading a group of high-school students during a Work ED cybersecurity career technical education program.CTE programs can take many forms and career pathways, especially thanks to the growth of digital, remote industries. Copyright Work ED.

    Most people are familiar with postsecondary CTE. The two most recognized forms of CTE are the technical certificate programs offered at community colleges and apprenticeship programs. These types of CTE programs offer invaluable experience for recent grads and cost a fraction of a traditional college education.

    But CTE comes in many shapes and sizes, and there are plenty of opportunities for students to begin their technical education in highschool.

    • Career Academies: Career academies are specialized programs within high schools that focus on a particular career field. For example, a school may have a career academy for healthcare, which offers courses in nursing, medical assisting, and pharmacy technology. 

    • Work-Based Learning (WBL): Work-based learning programs provide students with real-world work experience while still in school. These programs can include internships, externships, and cooperative education programs.

    Ideally these two types of CTE are used in conjunction with each other, allowing students to both learn the necessary skills, and practice them. 

    For example, a student who’s interested in IT or computer science and looking for an accessible pathway could learn the basics of cybersecurity in a career academy, and then build those skills during an externship, which simulates on-the-job scenarios such as responding to a cybersecurity incident. 

    So CTE works particularly well when different programs at different age groups help students build skills over time, until they reach a point where they are highly employable in that field even straight out of high school.

    What careers pathways are available through CTE programs?

    The National Career Clusters Framework® organizes CTE curriculum into 79 career pathways to empower students to succeed within their given field of study.

    These 79 pathways are grouped together into 16 career clusters, including:

    • Information technology

    • Business Management and administration

    • Manufacturing

    • Marketing

    • Arts, A/V Technology & Communications

    However, this is just a guide to help educators create CTE programs for their students.

    In today's world, there are many high-earning, rewarding career pathways that educators can introduce young people to.

    Find out more about our Work-based Learning Programs

    Why is career technical education important?

    A student gives a presentation, demonstrating their newfound career skills in action.CTE concepts can be applied to all age groups—students can be given the opportunity to practice workplace softskills, such as public speaking, in a safe and supportive environment. Copyright Work ED.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything about the school to workforce pipeline, from how we learn to where we work, and beyond.

    These changes have left gaping holes in the skills marketplace, and more critically, in students' education and development

    CTE can fill the holes left by the pandemic by bringing occupational skills into the classroom and preparing students with the technical knowledge they’ll need to enter the workforce—with or without a college degree.

    Additionally, as the cost of a college education rises, the number of young people choosing to opt out of traditional higher education is rising as well—making CTE an attractive (and practical) alternative to college. 

    CTE provides a springboard into high-growth careers for students who prefer non-traditional learning environments, who don’t have the resources (or desire) to attend a 4-year institution, or who simply don’t want to take on the burden of college debt.

    What are the benefits of CTE?

    CTE provides an abundance of specific, well-documented benefits for both students and the economy.

    CTE benefits for students

    • Increasing student engagement and academic performance: CTE programs help increase student engagement by providing hands-on, experiential learning opportunities. According to the Association for Career Technical Education, students who participate in CTE are “more likely … to enroll in postsecondary education and are just as likely to earn a degree or certificate.” Additionally, Highschool graduation rates among CTE participants is around 90%—15 percent higher than the national average.

    • Empowering students to choose their own career pathways: CTE programs can provide students with clear career pathways that lead to high-wage, high-demand careers. According to a 2020 Georgetown study, “an associate’s degree holder in a computer and mathematical occupation has median lifetime earnings of $2.8 million, the same as median lifetime earnings for bachelor’s degree holders overall.”

    • Supporting equity and access: The Coronavirus pandemic amplified existing inequalities for underserved students. CTE programs can help promote equity and access by providing students from diverse backgrounds with the opportunity and contacts to succeed in high-wage careers, without taking on the additional burden of student loan debt.

    Did you know: Under the Perkins statute, Congress authorizes 16 million dollars annually to fund career technical education for Native American and Alaska Native students, and an additional 3.2 million for Native Hawaiian students

    CTE benefits for the economy

    If enough students gain access to CTE programs, the wider economy benefits, too.

    CTE programs benefit the economy by:

    • Meeting workforce needs: By preparing students for careers in growing industries, CTE programs help meet workforce needs and contribute to economic growth and stability in local communities.

    • Economic growth: In 2020, Southwestern College reported that their CTE program had an “$184.5 million impact [in their service area, and] supported 2,293 regional jobs, using the jobs-to-sales ratios specific to each industry in the region. This means that one out of every 94 jobs in the SWCCD Service Region is supported by the activities of SWC’s CTE and its students.”

    • Closing the skills gap: By offering relevant curriculum, industry certifications, work-based learning opportunities, and partnerships with industry, CTE programs help bridge the gap between education and the workforce.

    Learn more about the skills gap facing the U.S.

    How can CTE help close the skills gap?

    The billion-dollar question.

    CTE provides a few major building blocks that can help address the skills gap currently facing employers in the U.S such as:

    1. Teaching students the soft skills they’ll need to find a job, get hired, get promoted, or even start their own business. 

    2. Giving students the hands-on occupational skills and industry certifications to get them started in high-growth careers sooner.

    3. Opening doors into highly-paid careers for students who don’t have the resources or the desire to go to a traditional 4-year higher education institution.

    By giving students access to CTE through career technical academies and work-based learning opportunities early and often in their academic careers, educators can set them up for long-term success in the workforce.

    Launch your own CTE-driven afterschool or intersession program

    How can schools integrate CTE into the curriculum?

    CTE should be a core part of every highschool’s curriculum– especially as educators look for new ways to address the learning loss caused by the pandemic. 

    Whether your school has a well-established CTE program, or is just starting out, here are some high-impact ways to get students involved.

    1. Provide work-based learning opportunities: High schools can provide work-based learning opportunities that allow students to gain hands-on experience in real-world settings. 

    1. Partner with local business and industry leaders: Partnering with local businesses can help high schools stay current with industry trends and provide students with the skills and contacts they’ll need to get started in their careers.

    1. Collaborate with post-secondary institutions: Post-secondary institutions like community colleges, technical academies, maker spaces and skills hubs allow students to develop the skills needed to succeed in post-secondary education and can lead to advanced industry certifications or degrees. They also provide access to tools and resources high schools may be unable to provide.

    Did you know: February is CTE Month. The Association of Career and Technical Education has a toolkit to help you celebrate and boost awareness. It’s never too early to start preparing!

    How Work ED can help with CTE

    A teacher helps out a high school student on their laptop during a Work ED cybersecurity career technical education program.At Work ED, all of our programming has an element of CTE. Copyright Work ED.

    We believe that all students should have the opportunity to develop skills that make them workforce ready.

    We also believe that the concepts of CTE can apply to any age group.

    That's why we’ve created a number of work-based learning pathways that allow students to learn real-world skills that set them up to thrive in exciting and lucrative careers.

    We design programs that empower students to take control of their own education and design the future they want—with or without a college degree.

    Here’s how Work ED can facilitate or supplement your CTE curriculum:

    • Our WBL programs are guided by local industry professionals in a program that lets students experience what it's like to work in business and technology

    We give students the hands-on experience and connections they need to break into highly desirable careers. Our programs are also designed to help students discover high-earning careers they didn’t know were available to them.

    • Programs for all age groups are designed to create workforce readiness in exciting, future-facing industries, such as video game design, cybersecurity and business startups. 

    Our programs get students excited to learn–both in and out of the classroom. By creating exciting programs, we get more students showing up—and wanting to come back for more! 

    We provide externships in each of the following areas. 

    • Programs provide valuable project-based experience and help students build a portfolio of work

    Our programs come with a minimum of 20 hours of work experience, and provide students project-based experience and completion badges students can use to build their portfolio, resume.

    If you’d like to run afterschool and enrichment programs that have CTE at their core, reach out to or fill in the form below.

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