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Career and Technical Education (CTE) Can Be a Direct Path to Higher Learning and a High-Paying Job

Angela Mike’s students are finishing up portfolios for their robotics and engineering electives, just two of the hundreds of Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses offered in Pittsburgh Public Schools. CTE is the new name for what used to be called Vo-Tech, and if you’re thinking that robotics and engineering don’t seem to fit amongst the greasy gears and woodshop tools, then you’re correct.

That’s because CTE has undergone a transformation. The modern concept of CTE gives high school students a “both/and” option for higher education and prepares students to keep up with a fast-paced, high-tech world of work. The Association for Career and Technical Education reports that CTE students were significantly more likely than their non-CTE counterparts to report developing problem-solving, project completion, research, work-related communication, time management and critical thinking skills, which are all highly sought after by employers across all sectors of the economy.

So what does this mean? It means that CTE can be a direct pathway to success. Per the ACTE, CTE students not only have higher graduation rates, they take on less post-secondary education debt, and in some cases, are out-earning peers with bachelor’s degrees in careers that are in high demand.

What if you could kick start your way to one of those jobs while you were still in high school?

A Leg Up

“My students earn cost-free industry certifications and post-secondary credits while they’re in high school,” Mike says. As the director of CTE for Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), Mike oversees individual courses allowing 3,900 students to explore different career paths. Within that group, over 500 choose to commit further via half-day, multi-year programs that combine high-tech equipment, instruction that explicitly links skills to common core standards, and preparation for national certification examinations.

Students studying multimedia production and coding, for instance, spend their high school years building web pages, producing weekly news programs they broadcast on social media, writing scripts, and learning to operate camera and audio equipment. Auto body students operate diagnostic equipment to determine the damage from a collision. Cosmetology students study geometry and ratios while learning to mix hair dye. Even starting at the middle school level, students can explore anything from cooking and sewing classes to aerospace engineering, finance, and accounting electives. “Our students are occupationally and academically ready for career, college, and life,” Mike says.

“Our students are occupationally and academically ready for career, college, and life.”

STEM education is such an important part of the national discourse right now, and given antiquated misconceptions about CTE, Mike understands why parents might feel wary about their students enrolling in a half-day program. Parents worry their children won’t get a “real” academic education while they’re studying HVAC or carpentry. But Mike reminds families that STEM skills are made explicit to students in classes that are more accessible because CTE courses are project-based, hands-on learning experiences in small class settings.

No Dead-End Jobs

Most PPS students enrolled in CTE continue their education after high school, Mike says. But because they’re leaving with industry certifications, they find lucrative jobs that build their resume in their career field while they are taking classes. While other college students might be slinging lattes and taking 101 courses, Mike’s CTE graduates have often already completed their introductory electives and find jobs paying upwards of $15/hour while they pursue anything from automotive certification to engineering to a dual degree in forensics science and accounting.

Students studying auto body repair often receive on-the-spot job offers from companies touring PPS facilities because trained technicians are in such high demand, Mike says. The emergency medicine track, which has a waiting list, was funded as part of an initiative to increase diversity among law enforcement and the bureau of fire in the city of Pittsburgh. Mike says these CTE opportunities build equity in the education system because not all students learn in the same way. Students who might flounder at a desk, learning just from a textbook, might flourish studying high-level math in an HVAC program where they can touch and manipulate equipment they’ll go on to use in their career. Mike herself attended the CTE program and got her cosmetology license. While she later went on to be a teacher, she was able to work in a nail salon all throughout college, where she had a head start on her coursework.

Mike says high school CTE programs help open doors into trade unions, which can sometimes be difficult to access for people who don’t already have an “in.” Her carpentry program, for example, partners with the local union and her students get assistance preparing for their certification exams. One of her students was able to pass exams and get a part-time job with the city, earning $20/hr as a carpenter before he finished his senior year of high school.

Supported By Tax Funding

Susie Puskar, director for youth innovation at Partner4Work in Allegheny County, a workforce development agency, explains that state and federal funding helps high school students develop skills, expand their professional networks, and explore opportunities while being paid. She’s overseeing a program this summer with two suburban CTE centers whose teenage students are interning for $10.15/hr in fields like IT, healthcare, and automotive technology. “These are STEM careers and high-growth fields, and the students get opportunities to practice the skills they learn in the classroom,” Puskar says.

CTE students can study a wide array of subjects including coding, cosmetology, engineering, finance, and more.

For teens who know they want to go directly into the workforce after high school, CTE and workforce development agencies have special programs pairing them with corporations that can hire and train them for work. Puskar has a grant from the PA Department of Labor and Industry to partner with FedEx, PNC, and UPMC to deliver curriculum directly to students, building work readiness, soft skills, and transferable job skills during their junior and senior years of high school. Puskar says, “This consortium of businesses is working with schools to ensure that students who otherwise might have fallen off after high school are connected into the program so they can build these networks and get into the hiring process for these jobs.”

Opportunities Everywhere

It’s not just urban youth getting the big grants and the big opportunities. Nationally, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act has received bipartisan support, opening up federal funding to CTE programs. John King, former acting U.S. Secretary of Education, said in 2016 that CTE programs “ensur[e] equity and excellence for every student in order to build stronger communities and a stronger America.”

So how can you get in on the action? The U.S. Department of Education has an Office for Career, Technical, and Adult Education. Their website can link interested seekers to programs, grants, and training courses nationwide. Their blog even lists special resources for youth who have dropped out of school, might be in the foster care system, or who may have been involved in the criminal justice system.

To find a CTE program in your area, contact the nearest community college or visit your high school guidance department. To see if a Workforce Development Agency in your area has programs to give you a boost, you can check the national listing of the American Job Center.

Continue Your Research:

Why Community College or Trade School Might Be Better Than a 4-Year Degree

5 Solid Benefits of Community College

Why Apprenticeships Can Be a Great Option for Students (Plus, Where to Find Them)

Find community colleges in your area here

Author: Katy Rank Lev

Katy Rank Lev is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh’s East End. She writes about education, women’s health, and parenthood. You can find her online at