There has been a recent resurgence in career and technical education. When compared to obtaining a traditional 4-year college degree that comes with growing tuition prices and lengthier programs of study, it’s hard for current students to ignore the increasing value of skills training programs.

Despite this newfound interest in CTE, the reality is that vocational guidance has been a priority in the United States for over 100 years since the Smith-Hughs Act for vocational education was first signed into law by the US Congress in 1917. The purpose of this act, along with several subsequent pieces of legislation like the Carl D. Perkins Acts, is to bring better awareness and opportunity to students seeking job skills training before graduating from high school.

The New Age of CTE

Today, CTE educators continue to guide and support students in developing 21st century skills that can be readily utilized in today’s workforce. However, not every school or district has prioritized work-based learning for their students. The result has led to large learning gaps and variability between the success of one school’s CTE program and another.

Let’s dive into several common questions and problems that plague vocational studies to find solutions that will help your district enhance the quality of its career and technical education program.

Why Is Vocational Training Important for Students?

Skills training experiences provide an opportunity for students to engage in foundational practices like working collaboratively with others or communicating effectively with a supervisor. Such skills are highly transferrable to any kind of future career setting, making them beneficial for students whether they decide to continue their technical education studies after high school or not.

Creating Common Goals

In addition to growing their skill set, students are also poised to benefit immensely from the networking opportunities that work-based training experiences can present to them. The best skills training programs are ones that engage not only teachers and students, but also local businesses.

Companies are always looking for new talent. Their added ability to nurture young students into high-performing employees who can continue working for the business immediately upon graduation is extraordinarily valuable.

Of course, the needs of the students should always come first. It is critical that CTE programs offer a healthy variety of training opportunities that allow students the chance to explore many potential careers sustained by a diverse group of local organizations.

Why Is Vocational Training Important for Everyone Else?

There is a growing skills gap in our country. This precarious situation has put our economic development at risk due to a lack of understanding and awareness among today’s young professionals who still require substantial training once they’ve joined the workforce.

It is a costly effort in both time and money to hurriedly substitute first-hand work experiences that these students never gained during their years in school. What’s worse is that many students come away from this situation only to discover that while they enjoyed studying a particular occupation, they don’t find the actual job to be personally fulfilling.

Course Correction

In order to meet future goals for our national workforce, students must be given more meaningful and accessible skills training opportunities. These vocational education offerings will ensure they can hit the ground running after graduation rather than stumbling from one degree to the next in search of an advantage over other candidates.

The ultimate advantage is to come into a new job with comparative, real-world experience – and the best way to get it is through work-based learning programs at the high school level.

What About the Skills Training Stigma?

Sadly, too many schools and students themselves view career and technical education essentials as an alternative pathway for those who don’t fit within the standard academic mold. Students who struggle to succeed in a traditional classroom environment are often funneled into CTE courses when educators are at a loss of where else to place them, and are attempting to protect the integrity of other core classes.

These methods are absolutely unacceptable. Every student deserves the time, attention, and resources needed to help them thrive at school. CTE programs are meant to exist as an avenue of educational enrichment with offerings to benefit all students, not as a last resort for those declining within contemporary classrooms.

By taking the proper approach to promoting career and technical education courses in your district as a worthwhile opportunity for 21st century skills development, students and educators alike will begin to shift their mindset to embrace CTE opportunities for the valuable experiences that they are.

When Should Vocational Education Begin?

It may seem obvious that the earlier students can begin exploring skills training opportunities, the better. However, this fact is often overlooked by school districts, as the issue of how to prepare students for 21st century learning experiences only becomes more pressing as students get closer to graduation.

The reality is that while educators and administrators may be acutely aware of the impact that early career education has upon their students, they simply do not have the time or resources available to prioritize this effort. Before you begin overhauling your career and technical program to rebuild it piece by piece from the ground up, consider early career awareness as a gentle step forward with exponential impacts for students.

A Primer for Postsecondary Planning

Ideally, career exploration should start in elementary to introduce core career concepts and give young learners a foundational understanding of the world of work. Children don’t realize what else exists beyond the careers they see every day. This lack of awareness leads many kids to rule out hundreds if not thousands of vocational opportunities by the time they are preparing for their next steps after high school.

Students who have taken the time to increase their self-awareness can approach work-based learning opportunities with complete confidence. By enrolling in educational courses aligned with their goals for the future, students stand to achieve significantly higher rates of completion and motivation throughout their program of study.

What’s the Solution for CTE Success?

Increasing the efficacy of your district’s skills training program can include a variety of tactics that center around these five themes:

  1. Provide diverse and equitable work-based learning experiences
  2. Create connections within your own community
  3. Promote a positive attitude toward CTE in your district
  4. Engage elementary students in early career awareness activities
  5. Align your vocational training offerings with current student interests

These takeaways may seem straight-forward on the surface, but can prove to be more difficult in practice. Try to prioritize progress over perfection as you look to improve your CTE program. Remember that the most important factor is not how quickly you can revolutionize your curriculum, but how consistent you are in applying the changes you make.