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The Importance of Career & Technical Education

You probably didn't know that February is Career & Technical Education (CTE) month. I only know because I teach at one of the around 2,000 CTE centers in the U.S. I moved from a traditional, public high school to my CTE center three years ago and have quickly become passionate about changing public opinion and getting more students to attend CTE programs for two main reasons.

First, for the last thirty years there has been a steady decline in the CTE programs that were so popular in the 60's and 70's. In fact, by 1998 only 8% of students completed some kind of vocational training. Instead there has been a strong push in public education across the country for high schoolers to prepare for and go to college. Even if they aren't sure what they want to study or if they really want to go, parents and guidance counselors still encourage students to apply and head off to a college or university after graduation. Of course, some of these kids find a focus and earn a degree that leads to future employment. But what's worrisome is that, in recent years, about 40% of students who go off to school do not find their way and earn a degree at the college where they start, according to National Center for Educational Statistics. Furthermore, by 2016 the average college student had $37,172 in student loan debt. 

What's really frustrating is that, while these students are at college not earning a degree and accumulating debt, there are tens of thousands of jobs in technical fields that go unfilled all across the country. This leads me to my second reason students should take CTE classes: there is a high demand for skilled workers! The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2022, one third of all jobs available will be in construction and health care. In fact, the need for construction workers is already so great that, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, last year 57% of contractors reported having trouble finding skilled workers. And how much were those skilled construction workers earning on average? $30 per hour.That's almost what I make with a Master's degree in education and seventeen years of experience! And these workers probably don't have the students loan debt that I have.

This trend of worker shortages combined with growing salaries can be seen in other career pathways as well such as health care and information technology. So promoting CTE classes and programs makes more sense than ever. What are some ways you can encourage students to learn more about the various career pathways? Check out the ideas below.

1. Have Students Complete Self Assessments & Research Jobs

There are LOTS of programs and sites out there that encourage career exploration. Some comprehensive programs, such as Career Cruising, Naviance, and CareerCenter21, are one-stop shops where students can take skills and personality tests and research jobs and colleges. However, they are pricey. If your school or district doesn't purchase these programs for you to use, there are other, free options out there, including the following:

  • Kids.gov provides free career exploration lesson plans for grades 4-6.
  • CareerOneStop, run by the US Department of Labor, provides a plethora of information and thousands of videos on all different jobs. There are also links to several online self-assessments middle and high school students can complete.
  • The National Education Empowerment Foundation provides nine quick activities teachers can do to get middle and high-schoolers thinking about future careers and life in general. 
  • The Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education created a simple, paper-and-pencil career interest survey that I like and use with my high schoolers each year.

2. Have Students Complete Interviews 

Another way students can learn about various jobs is by conducting interviews with people who actually do those jobs. This can lead to a lot of useful information they probably won't learn on many career exploration websites. Interviews could be done face-to-face, over the phone or via e-mail. PBS New Hour provides a great lesson plan for helping students prepare for and conduct interviews.

2. Have Students Read & Discuss the S.W.E.A.T. Pledge

Mike Rowe, former host of the show Dirty Jobs, has become a huge advocate for CTE over the last decade. He and his Mike Rowe WORKS Foundation even provide scholarships for skilled worker training. However, before an applicant can get a scholarship, he/she must sign the S.W.E.A.T. Pledge. This pledge contains 12 personal statements the applicants must affirm. Some of the statements are a bit more controversial than others, and there are several ways any teacher could use the pledge to get students talking about themselves and their futures.

  • Students can use statements 8 or 10 and write about a time they or someone they know had to learn one of those lessons the hard way.
  • Students can debate either statements 3, 4 or 5 (the three most controversial), coming up with clear reasons why they agree or disagree.
  • Students can use statement 1 as inspiration to keep a gratefulness journal for a set amount of time (a week, a month, etc.). They should then reflect on whether this simple practice led to genuine feelings of gratefulness. 
  • Students can use statements 7 or 12 and research, discuss or write about jobs that they would be so excited to do every day. 

I hope some of these career exploration activities has gotten your wheels turning! I truly believe that the more we can expose students to all different career paths, not just those that require a college degree, the better chance they have of ultimately ending up in a job they will enjoy and be successful at. 




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