If it seems like career and technical education (CTE) is hot right now, that’s because it is.
Slowly but surely, we’re making progress toward establishing an education-to-workforce pipeline that prepares all Americans for well-paying jobs. Some of the country’s biggest and most innovative companies have made high-profile, high-dollar commitments to training the workforce of the future, and their CEOs have made skills development, lifelong learning and the future of work buzzy topics on the speaking circuit. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have put considerable weight behind a push to expand apprenticeships. Congress even reached rare bipartisan consensus on reauthorizing the Perkins Act.
This attention is long overdue.
While there is growing consensus in favor of expanding career training options, it’s not enough for such options to simply exist. Many past CTE programs have offered too little quality education grounded in evidence and best practice and too much career uncertainty upon graduation, falling short of their potential for both students and employers.
With investing in CTE established as a “front burner” policy priority, we have a major opportunity to ensure we don’t repeat past mistakes—or settle for a transactional experience that results in a first job without arming learners for the long game. That means both developing a robust collection of research on what works and what doesn’t and building an effective training ground for practitioners who will teach and lead the next generation of CTE students and workers.
At ECMC Foundation, we are acutely aware of these challenges and making meaningful investments to avoid the pitfalls of unproven, outdated CTE options. We recently launched the CTE Leadership Collaborative, designed to bring together diverse perspectives and equip postsecondary CTE leaders with the tools, resources and skills needed to advance in their field.
It will focus initially on two challenges that have been largely overlooked in discussions of how postsecondary CTE can fill holes in the education to workforce pipeline: the knowledge gap and the people gap.
Because it has long been seen as a second-rate educational option, compared to liberal arts schools, postsecondary CTE has suffered from a lack of funding, support and research. As a result, a significant dearth of knowledge exists about the delivery models and best practices needed to generate strong student outcomes. Research released last month by MDRC and Bloomberg Philanthropies found that “even as CTE programs have grown in popularity, the evidence base to support their re-emergence has lagged.”
To build this evidence base, we need research into the biggest barriers that exist to CTE access and completion, the ways of delivering postsecondary CTE that best teach students the skills they need, and the most promising ways for schools and employers to work together and ensure classroom learnings translate into real-world job opportunities. In partnership with North Carolina State University, we’re funding an initial class of 30-40 graduate and postdoctoral researchers, who will find answers to key questions like whether apprenticeships or classroom-based CTE are better for teaching soft skills or which skills are likely to be most in-demand five and 10 years down the line.
Building this base of knowledge is crucial to the long-term viability of postsecondary CTE, but the field suffers equally from a second challenge: the lack of a robust infrastructure to help young, passionate, talented CTE professionals become the leaders needed to take any educational offering from good to great. As CTE continues to grow, this urgent need for skilled practitioners will only grow more severe, as higher education researchers have raised concern over high retirement rates among community college presidents and other administrators.
A new partnership with the Association for Career and Technical Education on a fellowship program to cultivate a cohort of leaders and changemakers in the space will aim to close that gap. These fellows will be armed with the tools — professional development, leadership training — that will allow them to take charge of CTE institutions and establish high-quality offerings for decades ahead.
These investments in closing CTE’s knowledge and people shortages are only a start. The worlds of philanthropy, higher education, business and government must take meaningful steps toward building and maintaining the pipeline of high-quality CTE offerings and the faculty, staff and administrators to support them. Collectively, we must ensure we don’t push a generation of learners into low-quality programs that leave them with thousands of dollars in debt and limited job prospects on the other side, all while failing to deliver the skilled workforce that employers need to compete.
By investing in closing CTE’s knowledge and people gaps in a holistic, grassroots way, CTE funders and providers can ensure they don’t lose sight of the field’s long-term needs: to establish proven best practices and develop a pipeline of leaders who are trained to deliver and administer quality CTE that fills the needs of the workforce now, and for years to come.