Career Pathways and Technical Education Task Force

Not Your Father’s Shop Class

The promising revival of career and technical education.

By Harry J. Holzer

In recent years, employment rates among young people have declined more rapidly than among any other group—just 30 percent of teens have jobs today, compared to about 50 percent in 2001. And, for many young people, this problem won’t magically disappear when the economy improves. Failing to gain important early work experience will likely result in lower wages and lower employment rates for years to come.

For young people without a college degree, the future is bleaker still. While workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher have enjoyed earnings growth over the last three decades, those with only high school or less have seen their incomes stagnate. Employment among men with only a high school diploma or less has consistently declined—more than 40 percent of these men are unemployed today, compared to about 25 percent in 1979.

The problem isn’t that young people aren’t pursuing higher education; in response to job market changes, large numbers of young Americans are, in fact, going to college—many are just not earning a degree or credential once they get there. That’s especially true for low-income and minority students. At community colleges, students can attain associate’s degrees or certificates and enjoy some labor market gains afterward. But only about a third of those who attend eventually obtain an associate’s degree, and only half gain any credential at all—a completion rate that is embarrassingly low.

While addressing these problems effectively requires a range of education and workforce policies, one particularly promising set of schooling practices deserves more attention and development: high-quality career and technical education (CTE). Designed to prepare high school students for employment and careers as well as for college, these promising new programs could play a critical role in reviving both the academic and employment prospects of young people.

In the past, CTE was known as “vocational education.” But let’s be clear: we are not talking about our father’s shop class or old-fashioned voc ed. In those classes, students with the weakest academic skills spent their time in dead-end classes that often prepared them for low-wage or disappearing jobs, if any job at all. Even worse, the programs tracked students, particularly minorities and disadvantaged students, away from college, leading voc ed programs to become very unpopular in those families and communities.

By contrast, the best models of high-quality CTE today integrate rigorous academic instruction into the teaching of technical and employment skills and thus prepare young people for college just as well as a traditional “college prep” program does. These next-generation CTE programs, available in both high schools and colleges, typically encompass a broad range of work-based learning efforts, including apprenticeships, paid internships, and co-op programs, in addition to in-school instruction.

For instance, there are now several thousand “career academies” around the country, where students take classes that prepare them for jobs in a particular sector (like health care, finance, or information technology) as well as participate in more general academic classes. To complement their classwork, students are placed into jobs in their chosen field during the summer or the academic year. For example, the Ballard High School Academy of Finance in Seattle trains students in financial literacy and banking activities within a broader academic curriculum, and also helps students get internships with local financial firms.

Research shows that career academies improve the earnings of disadvantaged students, especially at-risk young males, after high school by nearly 20 percent, and that these gains persist for many years afterward.

Other new and very promising CTE models are developing around the country. The High Schools That Work model, which combines rigorous academic work with career education, has been implemented in dozens of school districts, especially in the South. In California, several school districts have implemented Linked Learning, which integrates strong academics into career exploration and development. Many regions are also developing “apprenticeship schools,” which grant associate’s degrees to high school students completing a program of classwork plus work experience in specified sectors. Many states are encouraging these trends by developing new career-oriented paths of study and work, often linked to high-growth economic sectors, and providing appropriate support for local schools and with business involvement.

The students who stand to benefit from these models are young people like Levi McCord and Nehemiah Myers, both students at the Lehigh Career and Technical Institute in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania. McCord, who takes traditional classes such as English and sociology at his public high school in the morning and then travels by bus to Lehigh for technical courses in the afternoon, plans to head straight into the workforce after graduation. “I’ll already have most of the skills I need to know to get a job,” said McCord, who is learning to become a welder. As a certified welder, he can eventually expect to earn as much as $67,000 in some parts of the country.

Myers, on the other hand, has been studying electromechanics and mechantronics part-time at Lehigh. He plans to enroll in a co-op program at a four-year college next year, where he can get paid work experience while working toward a bachelor’s degree in engineering. “I’m hoping to get accepted into one senior year,” Myers said.

By teaching high-level academic work in more applied contexts, like project-based and work-based settings, high-quality CTE can make academic material more accessible and more appealing to students like McCord and Myers. Because they are more motivated to learn this material in a real-world context, and understand it better, their performance in high school and enrollment in college might actually rise. Moreover, the stigma now associated with career education among the best-prepared students should diminish over time.

Given the potential demonstrated by these new models, dismantling the walls that have separated CTE from more traditional programs leading to higher education should be a priority for educators and policymakers. Our goal should be to have all students graduate from high school ready for both college and careers, and be able to choose from a range of appealing higher education and labor market possibilities afterward.

This implies a need not just to teach CTE in “silos” that separate these students from those who will attend college, but also to offer at least some education about careers and employment skills to all students. Of course, we do not envision locking students into specific careers so early in their lives; rather, career exploration and education should enhance their labor market knowledge and future opportunities, without closing off any higher education or professional options.

For instance, students need more information and counseling about jobs and careers to help them pick courses of study that they can complete and that will lead to good-paying jobs. And colleges should face stronger financial incentives from the government to help students do so. Employers and industry associations should also stay involved in efforts to develop CTE curricula, to ensure their relevance to the skills employers seek (and often have difficulty finding) among potential workers. And appropriate assessment tools must be developed to measure student attainment of technical and employability skills, beyond those measuring the usual academic outcomes, along with policies holding schools accountable for their development.

In addition, high-quality CTE should provide a range of social and academic supports, especially to students who have fallen behind in academic preparation. Teachers and administrators might also need professional support to keep up with newer curriculum and pedagogical developments in this area. High schools must develop agreements with local colleges (known as “articulation”) to ensure that students find appropriate pathways from the former to the latter, and perhaps begin their post-secondary work while still in high school.

To achieve these goals, the states and the federal government could do more to support innovations in high-quality CTE and the scaling of successful models. For example, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which provides about a billion dollars each year to state and local CTE, should target funds to programs based on newer and better models. Building better career pathways in high schools and colleges for young students as well as adults could be encouraged through other federal laws, such as the Higher Education Act and the Workforce Investment Act, or other programs that provide grants for the most innovative state and local efforts. All would require more rigorous research and evaluation to identify the successful approaches before moving them forward.

State governments could also provide funds and technical assistance to local school districts to help them generate more effective CTE teacher development and student support services. They could do more to help build modern teaching curricula that combine academic and technical skill building, and develop more partnerships between industry and educators to ensure the job market relevance of CTE. They could also help develop tests that better assess the technical and employment skills of students as well as their academic ones, so we could hold districts more accountable for the quality of the CTE programs they provide.

More broadly, we need to better integrate the worlds of education and workforce services and make both more responsive to job market trends. In an era when public funding for education will remain tight, we must use the resources we currently spend more effectively than we do today. While we don’t have all the answers to the labor market problems of our young people and our disadvantaged citizens, providing better career tech education and workforce services would certainly help.

Harry J. Holzer is a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and a visiting fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.