The Role of Career Technical Education in Bridging the Skills Gap

Stuart Udell, CEO, K12 Inc.
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Stuart Udell, CEO, K12 Inc.

February is Career Technical Education (CTE) Month, created to raise awareness about and help bridge the skills gap currently experienced by businesses across the nation. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, more than half of U.S. employers report struggling with talent acquisition. This shortage is particularly acute within industries experiencing high growth and increased demand for technically-trained workers, such as healthcare, information technology, and the skilled trades.

Traditional education models have been slow to deliver the training necessary for high school graduates to effectively bridge state and local skills gaps upon entry into the workforce. Consequently, according to a 2015 Pew Research study, roughly seven-in-ten (72 percent) Americans say “a lot” of responsibility falls on individuals themselves to ensure they have the right skills and education to be successful in today’s economy. More than half (60 percent) believe public K-12 schools bear responsibility for such training.

A national workforce of lifelong learners armed with high school diplomas along with relevant skills and credentials is critical for 21st century competitiveness. Yet, as I’ve learned through my work on the Board of the National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC) for the past 14 years, remarkably, nearly one in four high school students in America fails to graduate on time. Literally millions of young people are grossly ill-equipped to compete in today’s workforce and economy, and quite likely condemned to lives filled with socioeconomic disadvantage.

 ​Now is the time to continue to re-imagine the way Career Technical Education is perceived and delivered 

Career Technical Education is one of the NDPC’s fifteen research-based strategies to reduce dropouts and increase graduation rates. In fact, in a landmark 2015 meta-analysis conducted by the NDPC, career development was found to have the largest effect size of any dropout prevention strategy evaluated in the study. CTE not only serves as a powerful method of ensuring high school persistence and completion, but also provides the first step in a “stackable” on-the-job training and post secondary education ladder.

Dr. Bill Daggett, noted thought leader on education innovation and creator of the Rigor/Relevance Framework, has long suggested that rigor and relevance in the instructional model are key to driving improvement in student outcomes and ultimately have a positive effect on the American workforce. In fact, on the Lexile framework, job training and technical manuals often outscore entry-level college textbooks. Relevance is quite evident in CTE, as students can see firsthand the very direct connection between instruction and application to real-world situations.

K12’s public school partnership business, Fuel Education (FuelEd), works with more than 2,000 school districts in all 50 states and offers a suite of CTE programs. In developing the curriculum, we carefully analyzed workforce needs to create specific learning paths for students to obtain the skills required for high-demand occupations – all before high school graduation. These Career Readiness Pathways provide an innovative approach to college and career readiness in four clusters: Business Management and Administration, Health Science, Information Technology, and Manufacturing. Examples of certifications that can be eventually earned include the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC) Certified Production Technician, Adobe® Certified Associate (ACA), and Pharmacy Technician certifications.

The benefits are clear. “We have local demand for highly-skilled workers in the Ohio Valley,”said Dr. Ron Iarussi, Superintendent of Ohio’s Mahoning County Educational Service Center, now offering Career Readiness Pathways in seven of its 20 member districts. “Students who want to enter the workforce after high school are much more marketable if they have a professional credential.”

“Implementation was easy,” said Andrew Velchek, Director of Technology at the Mahoning County Education Service Center. “Many students were already using Fuel Education online courses, so the Career Readiness Pathways courses automatically appeared in their class list when they signed in. The online format also makes it ideal for students to fit the coursework into their busy schedules.”

The Colorado Digital Board of Cooperative Education Service (CD BOCES) is also leveraging Career Readiness Pathways. “We identify best practices in online and blended learning and then share them with districts,” said Kim McClelland, Executive Director of CD BOCES. Qualified students are encouraged to explore their interest in STEM and work-based learning models, in addition to earning credit toward high school diplomas and college degrees simultaneously. These types of CTE-focused dual and concurrent enrollment mechanisms provide meaningful opportunities for students to get ahead of the curve and save on postsecondary tuition.

In addition to offering online and blended learning solutions to school districts, K12 has recently created and operates a half-dozen highly-innovative managed career academies, specifically designed to bridge local skills gaps. In 2016, we opened the Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin (WIDCA), the state’s first-ever CTE-focused online high school. This ground breaking school was actually launched in partnership with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 (heavy machinery operators) and Fox Valley Technical College. Students have the opportunity to earn technical and specialty trade credentials and college credits that well position them to earn industry certifications and possible apprenticeships.

Terry McGowan, President of the Operating Engineers, who was named 2016 “Innovator of the Year” by The Daily Reporter’s annual list of newsmakers thanks to his work in launching the school said, “These students learn what is expected of them in the skilled trades within a virtual setting. This will help meet our state’s critical workforce development needs and prepare our young people with the knowledge and training necessary to access the many available high-paying technical jobs that will help our state grow.”

K12 has also launched Destinations Academies or programs in Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, South Carolina and through our K12 International Academy. Students even have the opportunity join a local SkillsUSA chapter. Our strategic partnership with this organization of students, teachers and industry professionals, dedicated to ensuring a skilled American workforce, enables students to take courses outside of the K12 course catalog and earn SkillsUSA scholarships.

As educators, business leaders and community partners, it is critical we support students in completing high school by identifying engaging and relevant learning opportunities that provide a real-world, career-oriented curriculum on a flexible schedule. High-quality, comprehensive CTE programs provide such opportunities and answer the call from employers across the nation to better prepare students to work successfully in a complex global marketplace. Now is the time to continue to re-imagine the way Career Technical Education is perceived and delivered. Working collaboratively, we can show there is more than one path to a successful future and do our part toward ensuring a vibrant national economy.

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