Common Challenges and New Opportunities for Career and Technical Education Programs

Career and Technical Education (CTE) represents a crucial pathway from education to employment. Traditionally a reliable pathway into the middle class, CTE is mired in misconceptions and stigmatized as a route strictly for failing students or a second-tier option for students not college bound. The truth is much brighter:

Strong CTE programming, aligned to industry demands, is an excellent option for all students. It is often just as likely to lead to a meaningful and well-paid career as four-year college and is much more affordable. However, even as perception lags behind reality, challenges remain for CTE programs.

Over the last few weeks, Colorado Succeeds reached out to a range of CTE programs around the state to get a sense for what is working and what is needed to help expand career pathways for all Colorado students. What follows is a summary of common challenges and new opportunities.

Industry “Gets It”

A mature African American man showing students how to repair a gasoline engine. He is teaching a class in a vocational school, for learning the auto mechanic trade. The instructor is in the middle, between a Caucasian man holding a digital tablet, and a Hispanic man helping with the engine.

Although the need to provide better CTE pathways is urgent, so are new efforts by industry to innovate and find solutions. Across Colorado, industry is clear-eyed about the growing skills-gap and there is fresh energy to change the way we grow our workforce.

In the manufacturing sector, the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance (CAMA) is piloting new ways to expose students as young as five to manufacturing careers through programs such Cardboard Creators. Interested middle schoolers are participating in day-long simulations to get a sense for what the job entails and high schoolers are touring factories to see 21st century manufacturing careers in action.

In construction, the Colorado Construction Institute (CCI) and Colorado Charter High School are working together to supply the carpenters, project managers, and architects needed to fuel Colorado’s housing boom. Next semester, as students work their way through a curriculum that includes everything from foundations to framing to finish, they will be learning in a classroom that they built themselves.

These are just two of many examples from across the state where industry is investing in the state’s future workforce.

Businesses are Hiring

The job prospects for graduates of many CTE programs across the state matches that of four-year colleges. Not only can graduates expect a secure, well-paid job, they can also be sure that they will graduate with much less debt than if they took the traditional post-secondary route.

Take the Wind Energy Technician Program at Northeastern Junior College (NJC). Wind energy is growing rapidly and technicians are in high demand. In fact, 96% of NJC’s graduates find and keep work and can expect to earn a $50,000 starting salary. The price tag? The two-year program costs just $10,000 altogether.

In healthcare, manufacturing, construction, and technology, job prospects are similarly bright. For students interested in these careers, earning a relevant certificate or Associates degree may well represent a better and more affordable pathway to a meaningful career than a four-year college.

Changing Minds on CTE

Nurse-in-hospital-checking-patient-charts-during-rounds-000075872059_DoubleBy far the biggest challenge for growing CTE in Colorado is changing outdated perceptions and reversing long-held stigmas. Many still consider CTE a route for failing students, rather than an efficient path into some of the fastest-growing industries. CTE is just as much a place for high-performing and ambitious students as it is for those who struggle in a typical learning environment.

These misconceptions persist in the minds of adults more than students themselves. In particular, parents and high school counselors often think of CTE as what it was when they were young, and not what it is now: automotive and cosmetology rather than advanced manufacturing and technology.

Changing perception takes time and will be as much a result of implementing excellent programming as better communication. However, closing skills-gaps in manufacturing, construction, and healthcare will certainly require changing the conversation.

CTE Instructors Needed

To train the next generation of nurses, machinists, and computer scientists, Colorado needs to lure industry experts into the classroom. The problem is, instructors can almost always earn a much higher wage in the labor market than they can as a first year teacher. For example, a Registered Nurse can earn a salary in the mid $70,000s. As an instructor at a high school or community college, she would be lucky to earn $40,000 her first year.

A reasonable solution is to pay CTE instructors a salary commensurate with what they make in their field. Sometimes, limited funding is the issue. However, more often than not, CTE programs are limited not by their budget but by institutional pay scales that do not differentiate between general and technical education teachers.

A successful effort to pay CTE instructors a “market value” salary recently passed in South Dakota. Some school districts and community colleges have also changed their pay scales to attract top talent. It is clear that this remains a challenge across Colorado.

Internships and Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are the link between education and employment for students, an opportunity for business to directly train their workforce, and a chance for students to earn while they learn.

There are also not nearly enough of them across Colorado.

Often, it is the logistical challenges and lack of expertise, more than funding that prevent employers from taking on interns and apprentices. Sometimes, concerns about liability are a barrier. However, it is undeniable that while some businesses are beginning to understand the critical role internships and apprenticeships play in workforce development, this remains a place where industry can step in and fill the gaps.

Young-woman-cutting-iron-bar-in-workshop-000062592086_DoubleFor example, in healthcare the inability to find clinical rotations for aspiring professionals is the biggest factor for the shortage of nurses. Disorganization amongst hospital networks and burdensome regulation by the Board of Nursing makes the placement of interns onerous. Streamlining this process and providing guidance could greatly expand the talent pipeline for all these industries.

“Our students and graduates are only as good as the experiences they have in their internships,” explained Stephanie Harrison, Dean of the Center for Health Sciences at the Community College of Denver.

“We are at the mercy of the hospitals and clinics. If they do not open up their doors and provide enough clinical rotations, the experience of our students is diminished.”

In all industries across Colorado, expanding the talent pipeline means increasing the opportunities for students to learn on the job.

Solutions at Work

Exciting new efforts are in the works to address some of these issues. Colorado Succeeds is studying the policy landscape to find ways to leverage the business community and working with partners across the state to elevate best practices and expand opportunities for CTE programming through policy and advocacy.

Career exploration programs are multiplying across the state, giving kids a chance to see what a job really looks like before picking a career. Considering a career in advanced manufacturing? Try tagging along on a Career Road Trip organized by the Larimer County Workforce Center. On one recent trip, students and teachers had a chance to see natural gas valves being sculpted from solid metal by skilled machinists at a brand new Woodward facility.

The NoCo Manufacturing Partnership is building new partnerships between industry and education to better collaborate on curriculum and give students a foot-in-the-door. By holding large regional meetings to replace one of the advisory committee meetings required for CTE programs receiving Perkins funding, NoCo hopes to facilitate connections between high school, post-secondary CTE programs, and local businesses.

Galvanize has received widespread acclaim for innovating technology education and bringing entrepreneurs and students together under one roof. Recently selected as part of the Department of Education’s EQUIP Program, Galvanize will be one of the first alternative education providers for which federal financial aid and loan guarantees are available. A recent visit to Galvanize by Hillary Clinton also shows the national platform CTE is being given and the opportunity Colorado has to lead in this work.

New Ideas

More solutions are waiting in the wings. Governor Hickenlooper recently signed new legislation to incentivize career preparation. When implemented, HB-1289 will provide school districts with $1,000 for each student that completes a credential in a high-demand industry, finishes a workplace training program, or completes an AP Computer Science course.

Additionally, after returning from a fact-finding trip to Switzerland, the BEL Commission and the Colorado Workforce Development Council are seeking to transform apprenticeships by launching the BASIC CareerResidency Pilot. In the program, which launched this summer, high school students will learn (and earn) while employed with Colorado technology, advanced manufacturing, and banking firms. Upon graduation, students will earn a high school diploma, industry-recognized certificates, and college credit. Best of all, with industry partners making a commitment on the front end, they’ll also have a job!

Colorado Succeeds knows that as a state, we must do more to prepare our students for success after high school. Providing students with a range of options earlier in their educational experience only helps open opportunities and pathways. While there are several excellent CTE programs across the state doing just that, there continues to be serious challenges that demand fresh thinking and innovative solutions. Fortunately, the education, policy, and business communities are joining forces and making progress to help remove barriers and give all Colorado students the opportunities they deserve.

Jamie Trafficanda

Manager of Communications and Programs
Colorado Succeeds

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