In 2024, career and technical education (CTE) is not simply an alternative for students whose future plans don’t include college. It’s a fundamental part of the K-12 experience and a viable career pathway for many students.
CTE lets students understand the relevance of what they’re learning in school. It exposes them to career pathways they might not have known about otherwise. It prepares them for rich and rewarding careers in high-paying, high-demand jobs, whether they go on to attend college or not.
For K-12 leaders to succeed in creating high-quality CTE programming, here are five key trends and challenges I believe will affect this important field in 2024 and beyond.
Administrators (and parents) need to understand that CTE career pathways are highly attractive.
A generation ago, CTE career pathways (aka vocational schools) were widely considered to be appropriate only for students with few other options. This created a vacuum over time and a huge shortage of workers for lucrative, life-long careers. Take manufacturing, for instance: Many jobs were moving overseas, the workplace environment was noisy and dirty, and the opportunities for advancement were seen as very limited.
But that’s all changing now. Aided by advancements in technology, manufacturing has made a huge comeback in the United States, and skilled workers are now in high demand. Today’s manufacturing facilities are clean, modern workplaces that offer many exciting opportunities for students to work with cutting-edge technologies, such as cloud computing, robotics, programmable logic controllers, or PLCs and simulation software
CTE training gives students a head start in preparing for high-growth, high-wage jobs, even those students whose plans after high school include a college education. It’s no longer a dumping ground for students, but an opportunity for everyone to thrive.
Students are benefiting from learning about careers at an earlier age.
High schools often hold career days to help students understand various career options, but waiting until high school is too late: Many students have already eliminated entire career paths from their minds by then.
By exposing children to possible career pathways at an earlier age, we can open up many more worlds of possibilities for them. This is why a growing number of school systems are introducing students to career pathways at younger ages. That is why STEM education is so important in elementary and middle school.
Giving students early exposure to career options is a critical strategy for closing economic gaps and putting them on a path toward college or directly to ahigh-paying career, the nonprofit Center for American Progress (CAP) argues—especially those from low-income communities.
Connecting what students are learning to possible career pathways not only helps them make more informed choices about their future, but it also deepens their engagement in school, as many educators have found. When students can see how the skills they’re learning in the classroom apply to various careers, this helps them answer the all-important question: “Why do I have to learn this?” It also helps them become more confident in their abilities, because every child learns in a different way. For example, think about learning about X, Y, and Z in math classes. If students have the opportunity to learn about robotics, they will be able to directly apply the math learning with a real-world robotic application.
Schools need to find alternative paths for recruiting CTE instructors.
Recruiting and retaining CTE instructors was already challenging for many districts—and the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. According to the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), 28 states and territories have reported CTE teaching shortages to the U.S. Department of Education for the 2023-24 school year.
With school systems competing with industry employers for talent, many schools already struggled to hire enough CTE teachers to meet their needs. Somebody who can teach about PLCs and robotics can easily make six figures applying those skills within a manufacturing facility, instead of making $50,000 a year teaching those skills to students.
After the pandemic, the shortage of qualified CTE instructors has only grown. COVID placed enormous stress on educators, and especially CTE teachers who were trying to teach historically hands-on courses in a completely new way, using technologies they weren’t comfortable with. In the wake of COVID, many teachers have taken early retirement or left the classroom for the private sector.
School systems need to be creative in finding new ways to recruit CTE instructors. For instance, they might consider establishing programs for pulling future CTE teachers from their current student pool. K-12 leaders also must work with policy makers to establish flexible credentialing options for CTE instructors. It’s bad enough that districts face a pay gap when competing with the private sector for talent—but if employees also have to go back to school to earn a master’s degree and a teaching certificate if they’re leaving an industry position to become a CTE instructor, that’s just not realistic.
Virtual tools that can support effective CTE instruction are emerging.
One positive trend to emerge from the pandemic is that tremendous strides have been made in the development of augmented and virtual reality software, simulation tools, and online learning platforms.
These technologies can help bridge the gap between theory and application of career-based skills. They don’t completely replace the need for hands-on learning within CTE programs, but they can give students a solid foundation at an earlier age, while reducing the amount of time that students need in a lab setting to get the kinetic, hands-on experience of actually performing a task for real—such as programming a robot or repairing a motor.
Online simulations can also supplement a teacher’s capability, which can reduce the challenges associated with hiring CTE instructors. For instance, a gamified computer science environment can help good math or science teachers to be confident in teaching coding skills to students even if they aren’t a coding expert for themselves.
Policy makers must understand the need for more CTE funding.
The main source of federal funding for CTE is the Perkins Basic State Program from the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. In the 2023 fiscal year, Perkins grants were funded at $1.44 billion. However, this funding source has remained relatively flat since the 1990s. During that time, the practical impact of Perkins grants has fallen by more than $900 million in inflation-adjusted dollars—amounting to a 45-percent reduction in the program’s purchasing power.
At the same time, technology is evolving rapidly, and schools don’t have the budgets to keep up with these changes. In addition, the gap between the skills that students are graduating with and the skills that employers require is widening.
CTE programs are pivotal in helping to close this skills gap, but that can only happen if lawmakers make the necessary investments in CTE instruction. ACTE is calling for a $400 million increase in Perkins grants to address this funding deficit.
To summarize these thoughts: Despite millions of job openings around the country, nearly three out of four employers in this ACTE report note a persistent mismatch between the skills they require and the skills their workers possess. CTE in schools can help prepare students more effectively for the jobs of the future, provided that administrators, parents, and students see the value of CTE pathways and students are exposed to career options earlier in their education. Schools must find creative ways to increase the pipeline of CTE instructors and integrate new technology tools into CTE courses, and policymakers must invest more in CTE programs.