College & Workforce Readiness

Is There a Mismatch Between Career-Tech Ed and Good Jobs?

By Catherine Gewertz — April 03, 2019 4 min read
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Career technical education has been celebrated as a way to funnel young people into good jobs without the debt of a bachelor’s degree. But a new study finds that it’s not doing well enough at matching students with the jobs that pay well and are most plentiful.

A report released Wednesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute shows mismatches between the career-related courses that high school students are taking and the fields that offer a lot of good-paying jobs.

Making sure that high schools and colleges are training students for good-paying jobs nearby is particularly important now that demographic studies show Americans are sticking closer to home, the study’s co-authors argue. They cited a 2015 New York Times analysis showing that the typical U.S. adult lives only 18 miles from his or her mother.

“Since most students who don’t attend four-year colleges will stay close to home, it’s critical that CTE coursetaking match local labor market opportunities,” the Fordham study says.

See also: Pruning Dead-End Pathways in Career Technical Education

But the pattern of mismatches the authors found suggest that schools are missing an important opportunity.

Looking across the national landscape, the Fordham research team found that even though business management/administration, hospitality/tourism, marketing, and manufacturing account for half the country’s jobs, those fields make up only one-quarter of the career-tech-ed classes students take.

For instance: Only 2 percent of the country’s jobs are in information technology, but that field accounts for 19 percent of the CTE courses students take. On the flip side, the hospitality industry accounts for 12.5 percent of U.S. jobs, but only 5 percent of career-tech-ed courses.

When the research team—Cameron Sublett, an associate professor of education at Pepperdine University, and David Griffith, a senior research and policy associate at Fordham—examined links between local economies and CTE courses, the findings were a bit more contradictory.

They wanted to know whether students’ CTE course-taking was related to the local job supply. There, they found a positive relationship: A boost in job supply was likely to drive greater enrollment in CTE classes in that field. A simple 1 percentage-point rise in a region’s information-technology employment, for instance, translated to a 10 percentage-point increase in the likelihood that students would take at least one IT course.

The Fordham researchers found a different dynamic, though, when they looked at links between the wages of local jobs and career-tech-ed classes. Students were actually less likely to take CTE classes in fields where local wages were higher. For example, a $1,000 increase in the wages of local information-technology jobs was associated with a 13.6 percentage-point decrease in the probability students would take one or more IT courses.

The co-authors wrote that career-tech-ed programs “need to do a better job of connecting students with higher-paying jobs,” and they recommended that high school, college, and local businesses “join hands” to better integrate what’s taught with what their regional labor markets need.

Sublett and Griffith analyzed the jobs-and-coursetaking alignment patterns in 10 major metropolitan areas and found that while many regions are making progress, they are still struggling with low levels of CTE coursetaking in job fields that are experiencing high demand.

Misplaced Focus?

In focusing on job availability, Fordham’s analysis overlooks a number of important points, said Kate Kreamer, the deputy executive director of Advance CTE, an organization that supports states and districts as they design career pathways.

“If you look just at in-demand jobs, you end up with entry-level, low-wage, low-skill jobs,” she said. “We should be looking at the nexus of [jobs that are] high-skill, high-wage, and in demand.”

The “marketing” jobs cluster might have a lot of retail jobs to offer, and the “hospitality and tourism” cluster includes many service jobs, she said. But that doesn’t necessarily mean schools should increase their offerings in those areas.

“It’s not that those jobs don’t have value,” Kreamer said. But in an effort to reduce the risk of funneling students into dead-end jobs, the career-tech-ed field is increasingly emphasizing jobs with solid career ladders, not just jobs that are available.

Thoughtful design of CTE offerings, Kreamer argued, must bring schools and businesses together to build pathways to jobs that meet all three criteria: They pay well, they demand highly skilled workers, and they’re in growing fields.

The newest version of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which doles out federal career-tech-ed funds, reflects this thinking, Kreamer noted. In order to win Perkins grants, K-12 schools and colleges now must undertake a local needs assessment that identifies opportunities in job sectors that meet all three criteria.

Kreamer also noted that the Fordham study is based on a cohort of students who entered high school a decade ago. Many states have made big changes since then in their career and technical education systems, she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.