Vocational education, long the stepchild of American secondary education, is enjoying a new vogue. With college debt soaring and youth unemployment stubbornly high, educators, employers, parents, and students are rethinking and, in several states, reshaping the options open to young people preparing for jobs in the middle of the skills ladder—jobs that require more than high school but less than a four-year college degree. The creative ferment is exhilarating, with strong intellectual underpinnings and a growing cadre of supporters. The all-important question for the future: Will it take hold—will it produce a new norm and a lasting transformation of American education? Much will depend on how seriously employers engage in the new experiment.
Voc ed is dead. The new term is “career and technical education” (CTE), and it’s catching on in Washington as well as in the nation’s leading education schools. But the new movement will not succeed unless technical training becomes a reliable route to skilled, well-paying jobs, and that will not happen unless American business engages in earnest.
Among the steps that the private sector must take for CTE to reach its full potential:
- Employers must recognize their responsibility to help prepare the workforce of tomorrow. It’s not their job alone: the best programs are partnerships between employers and educators, and government can help. But there will be no meaningful change without business participation on a much broader scale.
- Among employers’ most significant value-adds will be to develop training standards and occupational credentials. This is already happening, and already driving more and better training programs. But the effort must be expanded—more standards for more occupations with involvement by more industry associations—and standards must be maintained and regularly updated.
- The apogee of CTE preparation—the key component of the most effective programs—is on-the-job training combined with classroom learning. Sometimes called apprenticeship, sometimes dual training or craft training, the combination can be expensive and difficult to structure and maintain. But nothing works as well, and it’s a proven long-term win-win—for trainees and for the employers who invest in them.