There is increasing agreement among educators that a four-year college degree needn’t be the goal for all students, and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, high-schoolers’ interest in career and technical education has grown.
A survey released in May by ECMC Group, a nonprofit corporation focused on higher education financial assistance, showed 22% of teens said they were more likely to attend a career and technical education college, up 10 percentage points from May 2020. Nearly half said they believe they can achieve success with education attained in three years or less.
A fundamental aspect of effective high school CTE programs is strong partnerships with local colleges, trade schools and businesses. In conversations with K-12 Dive, experts suggested seven steps school leaders can take to achieve that.
Focus on the labor market
It’s imperative to align CTE programs with the needs of the labor market, said Stephen DeWitt, deputy executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education. “You want to make sure that whatever you’re teaching is leading students to careers and opportunities available in your community and your region,” DeWitt said.
That, in turn, can build relationships with local community colleges and trade schools focused on serving the labor market, as well as business partners who are on the lookout for future employees. It’s also a requirement to get funding under the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the main source of federal money for high school and post-secondary CTE programs, DeWitt said.
It’s best to start small and work on building an ongoing relationship with partners, DeWitt said. “Pick up the phone and call them, and have a meeting and start a discussion.”
Building a strong CTE program can be slow-going at first, but the returns are exponentially larger over time, because success stories entice new partners to come on board, said Tracey Scharmann, career connected learning coordinator for CTE at Vancouver Public Schools in Vancouver, Washington. “That's the best way to grow your program: slowly, with intention, creating systems that can be sustainable without you.”
School districts and post-secondary institutions should work closely to ensure they are serving students effectively, DeWitt said.
“You have to sit down and roll up your sleeves, and look at your programs to see where you are duplicating content,” DeWitt said. “You can work on dual enrollment, which is terrific for a lot of students because they get college credit, and sometimes even an associate’s degree with their high school degree.”
Parents should know about dual-credit opportunities, because financial savings can be especially important to them, Scharmann said. To increase students’ awareness of all options, Vancouver Public Schools invites local trade schools and apprenticeship programs to participate in its “college and career” events and collaborates with union programs and a trade training facility that hosts student tours and open houses for educators.
“The more they (educators) know about the postsecondary options, the more our students will know, and the better prepared they will be,” Scharmann said.
Create value and make it easy
It’s important for local business partners to get value out of offering CTE student internships, Scharmann said.
“Find out what the work sites need and why they would want students, and make it as easy as possible for them to do that,” she said. For example, businesses might have “back-burner” projects that students can work on.
Businesses also appreciate clear guidelines regarding the structure of internships and things like student workplace safety, Scharmann said. Rather than trying to connect students with internships one at a time, VPS invites employers and students to a dinner followed by one-on-one interviews. Students select the companies they’re interested in, and employers decide who’s a good match.
“This has been tremendously successful,” Scharmann said.
When businesses are reluctant to have students on-site, they can be enticed to come to the schools. VPS partnered with seven local construction companies on a CTE project where students built a janitor shed from foundation to roof, Scharmann said. The materials were funded by a local grant.
“That was really successful,” Scharmann said.
Another hurdle can be transportation, so VPS provides students with Uber rides if they are over 18 and gift cards for gas, funded by another grant. Additionally, the local public transit agency has a trainer who can work individually with students in need of help getting comfortable with bus routes, she said.
Piggyback on community events
Local events featuring trade professionals are a great avenue to make connections, Scharmann said. For example, VPS offers a field trip to the annual Dozer Day event — also held in other states — so students can go through mock interviews with local partner companies. On top of that, students can participate in hands-on activities that involve heavy construction equipment, public safety vehicles, recycling trucks and more.
Besides being great practice, the mock interviews have led to CTE internships and even, in one case, a full-time job, Scharmann said.
Offer teachers externships
Schools can also use externships to help CTE teachers keep their skills up to date while enhancing business partnerships, Scharmann said. VPS offers 40-hour teacher externships at partner worksites during the summer, paying their salary with federal Perkins grant money, Scharmann said.
“The work sites love it,” she said. “They get 40 free hours of someone working for them.”
And in turn, career programs get educators who know the latest skills and needs in their fields.