Back in the day, schools had vocational programs – mostly variations on the classic shop class. Then came a modernized version of skill-building called Career and Technical Education, or CTE. That has been a welcome but slow-moving adaptation to the contemporary job market, where about 75 percent of jobs require training and education beyond high school.
Now our state is poised to take another, hopefully bigger, step forward with the advent of Career Connected Learning, an initiative of Gov. Jay Inslee’s, led by an alliance of educators, employers, unions, nonprofits and government agencies.
There are two primary goals of this initiative. The first is to ensure that all kids – including those who plan to earn bachelor’s degrees – have access to programs that help them explore and prepare for a broad range of career pathways. This is important to prevent young people from just drifting around in low-wage jobs after graduation – a problem that affects far too many young people, including, for example, all those baristas with BA degrees.
The second goal is to help employers find qualified applicants for the 740,000 job openings expected in Washington state in the next five years in complex, often technology-intensive jobs, most of which will require specialized education and training.
This is an expensive and complex challenge that requires collaboration between middle and high school staff, local and regional employers, government agencies, unions, two- and four-year colleges and students and their families.
Years of work building CTE programs mean that there are great programs to light the path ahead and rethink how kids spend the last two years of high school.
For instance, the pioneering Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee offers two spectacular programs for high school juniors and seniors that prepare them to be Production Technicians or Automation Technicians. These programs pair classroom instruction with apprenticeship programs and paid on-the-job training at an AJAC employer. Both lead to a high school diploma, a journey-level credential, and a short-term college certificate. And, according to John Aultman, Inslee’s policy advisor on higher education and workforce development, students can earn up to $28,000 by the time they graduate. That’s quite a contrast to entering the workforce with a load of student debt.
The students who succeed in programs like these are sometimes students who struggle in conventional high school classes. Brad Hooper, director of career and technical education at North Thurston Public Schools, says that kids who learn “math for the trades” in hands-on work settings usually succeed even when they’ve had trouble in conventional math classrooms.
Hooper spends time building relationships with local employers such as Lakeside Industries who are willing to help students explore the real world of work, and whose aging workforce is creating openings for new employees. Hooper also works to develop career-oriented learning programs that qualify for high school credits. For instance, a metals design class might count as both a vocational and fine art credit, satisfying the required fine art credit and freeing up the student’s time for another career-related elective. He says school systems are still struggling with how to meet the rigorous 24-credit requirements for high school graduation in ways that make room for career preparation.
Balancing the sometimes competing goals of academic rigor and job preparation may never be easy. But kids need to know what’s out there in the adult world, in fields ranging from health care to construction to finance to fine arts. And both kids and adult workers need to know how to navigate the intertwined worlds of education and employment so they don’t miss opportunities to get beyond entry level, low-wage jobs.
The legislative session set to adjourn today allocates $12.5 million the next two years, and proposes the same amount for the following two years.
That’s a significant step forward. Robust career-connected learning can be a powerful antidote to deepening income inequality and persistent poverty. It can help employers hire locally instead of recruiting from other states.
Nearly two decades into the 21st century, it’s long past time to stop thinking of job-related learning as the lowbrow stepchild of academic education.
Last week, the North Thurston school board helped that change in thinking along by hosting a community conversation about Career Connected Learning with local parents, citizens and business leaders. Good for them. The more students, parents, citizens and business leaders who actively support it, the more likely it is that the legislature will keep building on this year’s budget allocation in the years ahead.