Warren County High School leaders knew they had a problem on their hands. Too many of their graduates were fixing lawnmower engines, a dead-end job in a declining industry, while right down the road, manufacturers were clamoring for workers with sophisticated technology skills to support the area’s booming automotive industry.
This small-town high school decided to right that imbalance. School officials phased out their program in two- and four-cycle engines and introduced a course of study in mechatronics, a blend of electronics and engineering that’s the brains of the automation in many advanced manufacturing systems.
With only a high school diploma and an entry-level mechatronics certification, teenagers can earn more than $45,000 a year here in rural Tennessee. Additional certifications and experience can boost earnings to $60,000.
Students can go further, too: They can earn associate degrees at local community colleges in mechanical pre-engineering or advanced integrated technology, or head to Middle Tennessee State University for bachelor’s degrees in engineering technology.
Because Warren County High School designed its mechatronics program to dovetail with the one at nearby Motlow Community College, students’ courses count for dual credit, so they’ll have a potential jump-start on any college degrees they decide to pursue.
What’s happening here in rural Tennessee reflects a growing focus nationally on building high-quality career and technical education programs. Leaders in the field are acutely aware that too many career tracks have trapped young people in low-paying jobs with dim growth potential. To improve students’ prospects, those leaders are insisting on a new definition of “high quality” programs—one that rests on the option of earning postsecondary credentials or degrees and on the availability of good-paying jobs in expanding industries.
Valerie Hubert’s path illustrates that new emphasis. A senior at Warren County High, she nabbed an internship at Batesville Casket, in nearby Manchester. The manufacturer wanted a student to help with packaging, but Valerie, a top mechatronics student, changed the company’s plans when she told officials she wanted to do computer coding.
This story is the first of a three-part series on key challenges facing career-and-technical-education programs as they attract a new wave of attention and support in schools across the country.
Part 1: Tennessee is working to improve program quality by ensuring that all pathways lead to higher education and jobs in growing fields.
Part 2: Read about efforts to create a demographically diverse student enrollment in New Jersey’s Marine Academy of Science and Technology, an elite career-and-technical-education program.
Part 3: The old “vocational education” system too often categorized low-income and minority students as poor college candidates and tracked them into blue-collar jobs. Read about Arkansas’ placement of career coaches in more than half its schools, a move that could circumvent tracking.
Now she’s part of Batesville’s engineering team, making $13 per hour, quite a cut above her last job, frying chicken for $7.75. As Batesville workers churn out 1,200 caskets a day in the massive facility, Valerie is tucked away in a quiet office cubicle, writing a program that will help the company track its production more efficiently.
She plans to attend Tennessee Technological University next year, where she’ll study for a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering or computer science.
Len Turner, Valerie’s supervisor at the plant, said he’s got “big plans” for her. He wants to team her up with the company’s robotics engineers. That scenario puts a huge grin on Valerie’s face. “Yeah,” she said. “Oh, yeah.”
When Tracy Risinger, Warren County’s career and technical education director, visited the Batesville plant recently, Turner summed the situation up for her this way: “Send us more Valeries,” he said. “We’ll take ‘em all.”
Building a System
Seventy-five miles away, high up in a state office building in Nashville, career-tech-ed leaders are working to create those kinds of promising career pathways for all students. The clear alignment of high school programs with postsecondary options, and with labor-market needs, doesn’t happen by accident. Tennessee is considered a leader in crafting those connections. On a recent spring day, the process of evaluating which high school programs of study should be welcomed, and which rebuffed, was on display.
Heather Justice, who oversees the state’s career-and-tech-ed programs, is meeting with Deborah Knoll, a consultant who focuses on a cluster of subjects including advanced manufacturing and information technology, to discuss whether to create a program of study in cybersecurity.
In Tennessee, districts can offer state-approved programs of study within 16 “career clusters,” or they can create their own, as Warren County did with mechatronics, and get the state’s permission to offer them. But any program must be backed up by data proving that it meets a labor-market need and that it offers students the opportunity to pursue higher education.
Knoll had met with her advisory council, a group of professionals from industry and higher education, so she had data to back up her cybersecurity proposal. She spread it across the meeting table for Justice to see.
A “heat map” showed high demand for cybersecurity workers across Tennessee, particularly around Knoxville and Nashville. Demand for those jobs is projected to grow 18 percent nationally, and 35 percent in Tennessee, by 2024, Knoll told Justice, who appeared interested. But she told Knoll to continue her research, checking in particular with districts around the state to gauge their interest in offering a cybersecurity program, to see if the demand is regional or statewide. Knoll will also have to demonstrate that students who opt for a cybersecurity program could move smoothly into postsecondary pathways.
In the ‘Hot Seat’
Those kinds of conversations are replicated throughout the year, subject area by subject area, as Tennessee works with a team of consultants, and with districts, industry, and higher education, to weed out weak offerings and replace them with strong ones. As they progress, the chats look more like dissertation defenses; the consultants are pressed to justify their proposals. That’s why Justice’s office has nicknamed them “hot seat” meetings.
Tennessee has used this system to eliminate 15 programs of study, such as floral design, since 2013. It is continually revising or replacing courses within those programs of study to keep up with industry’s needs.
Assembling programs of study with strong employment and higher education potential establishes a “new floor” in Tennessee: not just a high school diploma but some postsecondary training after high school, said education Commissioner Candice McQueen. To support that shift, the state is moving toward a new accountability system that will let schools demonstrate strength not only by making students college-ready, with high ACT scores or dual-enrollment credits, but also work-ready, by earning industry certifications.
“The message is certainly not to stop [after an industry certification],” McQueen said. “That certification will let you pay the bills in your apartment while you continue your education. College or work isn’t the decision anymore. It’s how you’re going to mesh the two.”
Rich McKeon, the director of career readiness for the Council of Chief State School Officers, said states are increasingly paying attention to ensuring that they’re preparing students for jobs that have solid growth potential and college pathways.
And they’re seeing a payoff in building strong career-oriented programs: National statistics show that career-and-tech-ed “concentrators"—students who take three related courses in a CTE field—are more likely to graduate from high school than those who don’t.
But their plans don’t as frequently include bachelor’s degrees. Eighty-two percent of CTE concentrators enroll in postsecondary education, compared with 91 percent of other students. More than one-quarter of the concentrators earn bachelor’s degrees, compared with 4 in 10 other students.
In Tennessee, nearly half the students in last year’s graduating class took three related courses in a given pathway. Six in 10 of those students enrolled in training or college immediately after high school, according to state officials.
Anthony P. Carnevale, an economist who directs Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said that for years, the dominant “college for all” mantra hasn’t allowed sufficiently for education and employment plans below the baccalaureate level. The bachelor’s degree is still generally “the gold standard” for its ability to command high wages, he said. But the wage value of certifications—not in all fields, but in some—has risen as well. Good preparation systems must value both, Carnevale said.
At Warren County High, teachers are working hard to dispel the old notion that students face an either-or decision: career and technical education or a bachelor’s degree. Under CTE director Risinger’s watchful eye, the message now is that career-tech-ed studies open the door to good jobs, while simultaneously serving as the first step toward a technical college, community college, or baccalaureate institution.
The flow of its graduates reflects that message. About half enroll in technical or community colleges after they earn their diplomas. Two in 10 go straight into the workforce. About one-quarter opt for bachelor’s degree programs.
Amy Ware, who teaches architectural and engineering design, points out that her students can use their computer-aided design skills in entry-level drafting jobs that pay $10 to $15 an hour while they work their way through bachelor’s degree programs. Students who leave Warren County with certified-nursing-assistant credentials can grab openings in that high-demand field while they study to become licensed vocational nurses or registered nurses.
Most of the students in Melissa Paz’s mechatronics class have their sights set on bachelor’s degrees. They spent a recent morning clustered around a complex, automated assembly system in their classroom, peering into its colorful wires and gauges as a widget moved down the line. When it got stuck, they returned to their computers, which govern the system, to troubleshoot the program and make it work properly.
That kind of problem-solving is what thrills Karrie Fischer. She loved the work she got to do on automated systems while studying mechatronics at Warren County.
“I love it when the system stops for some reason, and you get to figure out what went wrong, and go, ‘Ah! I fixed it!’ ” said Fischer, who graduated in 2016.
Now 19, Fischer attends community college full time and works the evening shift at Miniature Precision Components, in nearby Morrison. The plant supplies car-engine covers for Ford, Nissan, and other big automotive manufacturers.
A job-shadowing gig at MPC in high school led her to this job, working the presses, where she earns $12.33 an hour, accrues vacation time, and has a 401(k). Each evening, Fischer grabs the covers off the line, lines them with foam, adds grommets, and sends them, by conveyor belt, around the corner, into a special mesh-covered cage where tall, yellow robots complete the work.
With long, swiveling necks, the robots hover over each engine cover, using embedded sensors to spot-weld and check for perfection. That’s where Fischer yearns to be, but the only personnel allowed in that special station are the engineers.
She’s not sure if she’ll stop at an associate degree or go on to earn a bachelor’s. But she glances at those robots frequently, imagining herself being their boss.
Those kinds of stories please Bill Zechman. As a member of the Warren County school board and a longtime businessman—he sells insurance in town—Zechman is a big booster of the high school’s career-skills-infused approach to learning.
“Graduation is almost here again,” he said on a recent spring evening. “If we don’t teach students skills, we’ve failed them and our community. They—and we—have one chance to get it right.”
Coverage of learning through integrated designs for school innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week as Pruning Dead-End Pathways in Career Tech. Ed.