Vocational Training: Career and Technical Education Takes Center Stage

Vocational Training: Career and Technical Education Takes Center Stage

After years of programming reductions, the call to bring vocational training back to schools has recently grown louder. For example, a 2018 National Public Radio report garnered a lot of attention, thanks not only to its compelling headline—"High-Paying Trade Jobs Sit Empty While High School Grads Line Up For University"—but also to its thought-provoking content. In the piece, education reporters Ashley Gross and Jon Marcus describe the plethora of “high-paid jobs requiring shorter and less expensive training” that sit unfilled while high school students bow to the pressure to attend four-year colleges. Beyond being troubling for the overall economy, Gross and Marcus suggested that the situation also amounts to a missed opportunity for many young people.

That’s because any number of high school students might be better suited to a career as a plumber, a machinist, or some other type of employment, but they aren’t getting the information or training they need to pursue such options. Indeed, a 2017 report that focused on Washington state argued that although students “can shorten the path to a good job” through career and technical programs, such pathways are typically not well coordinated by the state agencies and school districts responsible for delivering them. The report went on to present suggestions for how to remedy this situation, including promoting greater awareness of different post-secondary options and creating more dual-enrollment opportunities so that students can complete training and coursework while still in high school.

This scenario isn’t limited to Washington, of course. In 2012, Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy addressed the nationwide death of vocational courses, otherwise known as career and technical education. Writing for the online journal Education Week, Tucker lamented what he viewed as the shrinking of America’s middle class—a situation he blamed in part on a mid-to-late-20th-century shift away from skills-based schooling. While vocational training was once a comprehensive part of the high school experience, Tucker explained that it was eventually whittled down to a separate, “lesser” track characterized by selective high schools working hand in hand with the business community to prepare a new generation of workers.

This push to separate vocational training from academic work was partly due to concern over whether American students were falling behind other industrialized nations in core subjects like math, reading, and science. As Tucker described it, “It was as if the United States felt that it had to choose between making improvements in students’ academic skills and maintaining a system to provide robust vocational skills.” This schism, which began to become more commonplace during the post-Vietnam War years, was accelerated in the wake of 2001’s No Child Left Behind law, which put greater emphasis on bulking up students’ basic skills via more frequent testing and accountability—and, some would argue, caused too great a shift away from other worthwhile aspects of education.

Less emphasis on career-focused programming has led to situations like the one described by NPR, wherein construction companies across the country are having trouble finding qualified workers. According to NPR, construction work, service industry jobs, and healthcare positions are “expected to account for one-third of all new jobs through 2022, yet the march to bachelor’s degrees continues.” Nicholas Wyman, who writes about 21st century workplace issues, echoed this concern in a 2016 piece for Forbes magazine, noting that “not everyone” is inclined toward—or interested in—a more purely academic path. Wyman cautioned that today, “high-schoolers hear barely a whisper about the many doors that the vocational education path can open.” He went on to note that even kids who wind up in two-year degree or job training programs frequently “go on to get additional education,” making these options less restrictive than some might fear.

With this in mind, some educators and policy experts are working diligently to bring back hands-on training and coursework, albeit with a 21st-century twist. For instance, New Hampshire’s Manchester School of Technology has received quite a bit of attention in recent years for its shift to what a 2018 Hechinger Report article described as a “revamped and rigorous career and technical education” model. To allay lingering concerns that vocational programs are not academically challenging, the public high school is attempting to “cross-pollinate academic and technical instruction,” giving students the option to take courses that will allow them to flourish in a business environment as they pursue updated vocational training in fields as diverse as game design, healthcare, and engineering. That said, the Hechinger Report made it clear that the Manchester School of Technology is a work in progress, which comes with significant challenges. For instance, securing adequate funding is an issue, as is the need to reach and successfully promote students who have struggled academically. Simply put, matching rigorous coursework and testing with more hands-on, career-focused pursuits has thus far not been a simple endeavor.

Another concern spelled out in the article is that students may need “elasticity” more than they need specific job skills. Amid growing automation and an ever-evolving economy, some researchers believe that schools should stay focused on providing all students with a solid, general education—one they can build on when job-based curveballs come their way. Still, Donald Trump’s first major piece of education policy as president was a 2018 reauthorization of the 1984 Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act that, although not wholeheartedly embraced by those in the vocational education field, seems to signal a move back to more hands-on training for students.


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