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Why Updating Career Technical Education Must Be a Presidential Priority

March 16, 2016
By Monique Rizer

A few months ago, a plumbing disaster forced me to replace all the pipes in my home. As a first time homeowner, I was nervous about who to trust with such a big investment. When the plumber appeared on my doorstep to give me an estimate, I was surprised at his youthful appearance, and I asked him how he got into the business.

His story was intriguing. Every generation of his family had served in the military since the American Revolution, but as a high school senior he was unsure of his next steps. While hanging out at a friend’s house one day, his friend’s mother suggested he try out the plumbing company where she worked. He accepted. And he thrived. He loved working with his hands and solving problems. He earned the appropriate certifications and began a career. He bought a home when he was 23 and plans to own a company one day.

This is the American Dream. And yet, this dream is at risk. Many young people do not have a caring adult or educational resources in their life to provide opportunities like my plumber did. Voters across the country are asking which next leader will, as president, work to restore that dream, particularly for our young adults.

Guided by bipartisan, cross-sector solutions that work across the country — from cities and suburbs to rural settings and tribal lands – we have created a plan, Restoring the American Dream: A Presidential Plan to Expand Opportunity, that identifies 12 actions the new president can take to increase opportunity in America. While not every solution must or should be solved through legislation or by government alone, the president’s leadership is essential. One of those recommendations is to update our career and technical education system. In fact, it’s something Congress can act on now, and for good reason.

By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some form of post-secondary education, be it a 4-year degree, master’s degree, or technical or job specific training, to meet the demands of a changing economy. Yet at the same time, today’s education system is not keeping up with the demands of tomorrow’s workforce and Americans are continuing to fall behind in developing the skills they need to compete in a global landscape. A study by Georgetown University, “The Economic Value of College Majors,” notes, “Without major changes to the U.S. postsecondary education system, the economy will fall short 5 million workers with postsecondary degrees by 2020.” We’re already seeing the effects of the emerging gap — many states with high unemployment also report thousands of available jobs.

High-quality career and technical education (CTE) can serve as a critical pathway to employment, financial security, and opportunity for young adults. Currently, 94 percent of high school students have access to CTE. The average high school graduation rate for students concentrating in CTE programs is 93 percent, compared to an average national freshman graduation rate of 80 percent.

CTE-related coursework and training can positively impact a student’s employment and earnings. Students who earn an associate’s degree and concentrate in many CTE-related fields can realize greater earnings than their non-CTE peers. One study found that a person with a CTE-related associate degree or credential has, on average, an annual income between $4,000 and $19,000 more than a person with a humanities associate’s degree.

Opportunity Nation is calling on the next president to work with Congress to advance policy initiatives that would expand and improve high-quality career and technical education for all students by:

  • Ensuring increased collaboration and coordination between secondary and postsecondary institutions
  • Ensuring increased collaboration between CTE and the private sector
  • Aligning CTE programs with regional and State workforce needs
  • Exposing students to career and work-based learning opportunities
  • Rewarding evidence-based practices with a focus on programs that can be scaled and replicated, and leverage more support from the private sector

National Academy Foundation (NAF), one of Opportunity Nation’s coalition members, knows the value of high-quality CTE in preparing students to succeed. NAF has developed an industry-focused curriculum as well as work-based learning experiences that focus on five high-growth fields: finance, hospitality and tourism, information technology, engineering, and health sciences.

More than 6,000 business people volunteer in classrooms, act as mentors and provide NAF students paid internships. Employers recognize the value of these experiences, as it is crucial for America’s corporations to invest in the future of our students and the future of their workforces.

Thirteen of America’s top companies, including KPMG, Lenovo, and Verizon, have committed to NAFTrack Certified Hiring, a promise to give special consideration to college students and eventual job applicants who, as high school graduates, earned NAFTrack Certification.

NAF transforms the high school experience by infusing industry-specific curricula and work-based learning experiences into its coursework, which ensures that students graduate high school and are college, career, and future ready. By engaging in project-based learning, students are able to witness the connection between lessons learned in the classroom and how their skills and talents can be applied to the professional world, all while learning from successful adults and mentors who have been in their position.

During the 2015-16 school year nearly 89,000 students attended 716 NAF academies across 36 states. In 2015, NAF academies reported 98 percent of seniors graduated and 92 percent of those graduates intended to pursue post-secondary credentials or degrees.

Another Opportunity Nation coalition member, Citizen Schools, partners their volunteer group of educators with public middle schools in low-income communities to offer more opportunities for students to gain valuable CTE skills. Students select two apprenticeships each semester where they explore new fields and career opportunities alongside community volunteers through hands-on, project-based learning. The students may work with these volunteers on projects like programming smartphone applications, filming and editing documentary films, engineering solar cars, and creating marketing campaigns. Citizen Schools’ combination of activities is designed to build student academic and 21st-century skills; provide students with access to successful community members, resources, and experiences; and inform student beliefs about connections between hard work, education, and success.

Check out this and other ideas in our coalition’s 12-point plan Restoring the American Dream: A Presidential Plan to Expand Opportunity.

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