Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Data Shed Light on Career Costs and Benefits

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 31, 2011 9 min read
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Q: What’s the first question a liberal arts major asks after graduating?

A: Do you want fries with that?

It’s an old joke, but one that has taken a new, more urgent edge since the recent recession, as young people with the ink still drying on their college diplomas have found fewer jobs in their chosen fields.

In the midst of a still-difficult national economy, federal officials and education researchers are starting to look beyond producing analyses that simply connect overall educational attainment to income. Instead, they are developing the tools to gauge what kinds of education credentials are needed for specific jobs. The results may eventually help students and parents make a better cost-benefit judgment on what careers to pursue.

That, advocates say, is likely to benefit K-12 career and technical education programs that can help students make tangible links between academics and eventual careers. The challenge for educators is to build enough flexibility into their programs so they can adapt curricula to a highly changeable job market.

“There is a lot of talk these days about the need to boost college and career readiness. But the truth is that most people—and I include myself here—have focused primarily on college readiness,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at an education conference in Washington in April. “Too often, career readiness is an afterthought.”

“There’s an urgent need to reimagine and remake career and technical education,” Duncan said. “CTE has an enormous, if often overlooked, impact on students, school systems, and our ability to prosper as a nation.”

Making Connections

Researchers at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics are starting to look at more detailed comparisons of how education helps students in different career fields. The National Crosswalk Service Center released new alignment tools this spring to allow better links between education, income, and career information in the federal databases maintained across those agencies.

The NCES has been analyzing the connections between K-12 career and technical education and higher education for decades, but in the past year the program has been restructured, “refocusing it with a broader focus on how career and technical education is associated with career attainment,” says Lisa Hudson, an education statistician for the new postsecondary, adult, and career education division of the NCES.

In 2010, one of the first of those more nuanced studies by the Census Bureau showed that “it is possible to get a high-paying job in certain fields without as much education as you might expect,” says Kurt J. Bauman, a co-author of the study and the chief of the Census Bureau’s education and social-stratification branch. The study, based on data from 37,513 adults in the 2001 and 2004 Surveys of Income and Program Participation, showed an average of only about one in three subbaccalaureate graduates was actually working in a job related to his or her field of study, according to Bauman. But, he adds, it’s “not just the number of years of education you have. ... Getting a job in the field in which you have a degree is associated with higher income.”

That finding supports an earlier report by the NCES, which found that average salary in the first three years of work for students with a certificate or associate degree increased with each additional year of education—but only if the graduate got a job in his or her degree field. For those working in another field, the years of education had no effect.

“Most kids have no opportunity for thoughtful planning about career education,” says James R. Stone III, the director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, based at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky. “The only thing kids hear when they go to school is, ‘Go to college,’ but college-ready is not the same thing as career-ready.”

Seeking the Best Jobs

Introducing students to a booming career field isn’t the same as readying them for the field’s best jobs.

Introducing students to a booming career field isn’t the same as readying them for the field’s best jobs. For example, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce’s “Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018” found that while full-time, full-year workers in health-care professional and technical jobs earn an average wage of $77,827 a year, workers in health-care support services, such as medical aides, can expect only a $28,446 average yearly wage—not enough to support a family of four at 150 percent of the federal poverty line. Those with no more than a high school diploma in a health-care technical job will still earn more on average than someone with a bachelor’s degree in a health-care support career

What It Takes: Linking Education to Jobs

According to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the economy has moved away from careers that require less formal education, such as agriculture. Most jobs require more technical training than they did previously. The amount of education required in fields like medicine or aeronautics depends heavily on the particular career within that field that a student wants.


SOURCE: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

Likewise, someone with an associate degree in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics career—the so-called STEM fields—makes wages on par with someone with a master’s degree in education : $59,743 vs. $60,415 a year.

“In other words,” the report notes, “while education level is highly associated with one’s earnings, other factors are gaining importance too: The type of degree one selects, the occupation one pursues within a particular industry, and a variety of personal traits also influence the average wages one can expect.”

Driven by the economic downturn coupled with intense pressure to turn around low-performing high schools, more school districts have been attempting to tie their academic programs to the local and regional job markets.

James J. Kemple, the executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, at New York University, who has conducted large-scale studies of career-tech education for the New York-based research group MDRC, says the number of career-themed academies,“has just exploded in the last 10 years and led to a proliferation of different themes.” But, he adds, “they are really bumping up against the challenge of implementing these things well.”

Doing Homework First

Constance M. Majka, the director of learning and innovation for Philadelphia Academies Inc., sees that a lot. Her nonprofit group, which connects local schools with partners in the business community, says principals often try to incorporate “hot” career education programs into their curricula without doing the necessary homework.

“If a school is working without an intermediary and the principal says, ‘I want to create a career academy for environmental technology,’ that may be great, but if in that community there are no jobs in that industry, that academy is ultimately set up to fail,” Majka says.

The Philadelphia group requires the schools it works with to complete a year of planning with the local business community, choosing a theme, developing curricula, and training staff members.

That’s the approach schools in the 78,000-student Metropolitan Nashville school district take, according to Jay Steele, the associate superintendent for high schools. He arrived a year and a half ago to beef up the academic rigor and career alignment of the district’s high schools, with backing from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Different Diplomas, Different Jobs

Although higher levels of education generally translate to higher salaries, people with the same basic levels of educational attainment can have different annual wages depending on their job categories.


SOURCE: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

After reviewing the chamber’s local and regional job-forecast data, the district found its vocational education program was not closely aligned with local labor-force needs.

Nashville has overhauled a dozen high schools to operate two to five career academies each, based on a five-year strategic plan. The district closed several other career academies deemed unconnected to “targeted industries” for the regional economy.

Each school develops curricular themes in partnership with six industry advisory groups, in areas such as business, engineering, hospitality, and health care. So far, the district has crafted 44 different career strands, in addition to offering Advanced Placement and other honors courses at each academy.

Each summer, teams of teachers at the academies participate in one-to four-week externships with businesses in their career strands, to help them devise project-based assignments connecting core subjects to those themes.

Tennessee state law now requires each student to graduate with three sequenced courses in a career theme. In the 78,000-student Metropolitan Nashville district, 16,000 of the 18,000 high school students attend one of the career academies; all students attend common courses in grade 9, including a required career-planning course, and then apply to a particular career strand for 10th through 12th grades.

“We see this primarily as a school improvement strategy, but [Nashville] will face a shortage of 20,000 skilled workers in the next 19 years,” says Marc E. Hill, the chief education offi cer for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re not just preparing students for the careers we have today, but increasingly we are preparing kids for jobs that haven’t been invented yet.”

Keeping pace with the changing job market can be problematic, Stone, of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, warns.

“Secondary school systems have a much harder time being nimble” than community colleges and certificate programs, he says. “The challenge as a K-12 system is you are not designed to gear up an automotive-engineering program and then shut it down two months later.”

Adapting to the Market

Thomas J. Bistocchi, the superintendent of Union County Vocational-Technical Schools in Scotch Plains, N.J., agrees that career curricula need regular tweaking. His district of just under 1,900 student includes both a traditional vocational program and four career academies

The district’s Academy for Information Technology was launched in 2002 “during the IT boom,” Bistocchi says. Students took Microsoft Office certification in 9th grade, A+ computer certifi cation in 10th, Oracle database management in 11th, and Java programming in their senior year; they graduated, he says, “incredibly job-ready” and most went on to college.

But a couple of years ago, Bistocchi says, the district’s quarterly jobsreview with local business groups turned up declining numbers of IT jobs in the area. His sons-in-law, both it professionals, noted that their own jobs had become less independent and more merged with their businesses as a whole.

“We didn’t want to continue to set up our students for a job structure that might not be there when they got out,” Bistocchi says."We morphed [the academy] into IT-business.” Students still take certification classes, he says, but now also take micro- and macroeconomics and other business courses, too.

In addition, the district’s lone IT director hires a cadre of students from the academy to work for the district after school and each summer, to give them on-the-job experience. Besides saving the district money, it teaches students “soft skills,” such as punctuality, teamwork, problem-solving, and professional behavior, Bistocchi says.

That professionalism, he and other experts in career education say, often proves the most sought-after attribute students can take away from career programs

Stone of the NRCCTE agrees: “Career-tech writ large is becoming much more exploratory than preparatory. That’s in stark contrast to the old career-tech that was narrowly focused on training for a job. We teach [core subjects] in a different way, not teach different things.”


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