CTE Today . . .
What you and your students need to know about the Career and Technical Education pathway to starting a career
A stand-up comedian once said, “By the time something becomes an acronym, forget it! It is already too late to take advantage of it.”
That might be true sometimes. By the time Computer Aided Design and Computer Aided Manufacturing was being called by the acronym CAD/CAM, for example, there were already tens of thousands of people sitting at terminals working CAD/CAM jobs.
But at other times, it is decidedly not true.
For example, it is not true for Artificial Intelligence, now commonly referred to simply as AI. Even though that acronym has now been around for decades, thousands of new jobs are being created every year for people who know about AI subdisciplines like predictive diagnostics, speech recognition technology, and others. So while AI is an acronym, it is a field that still is growing and creating new career possibilities for young people.
And it is certainly not true that opportunities have dried up in Career and Technical Education, even though it has become a commonly used acronym, CTE.
But where do opportunities for today’s high school students lie in the CTE path to a professional life? And what is CTE anyway? Let’s find out.
What Is CTE?
It is helpful to think of CTE as an extended form of STEM learning, made up of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Why extended? Because the philosophy behind CTE is that learning should be practical and valuable in today’s workplace. When students participate in CTE-oriented programs, they are preparing for specific jobs in the real world, not “learning for the sake of learning” or adding skills they will never use.
For example, when a student prepares to become a cybersecurity analyst, a mechanical engineer or a software developer who specializes in building travel apps, that is an example of CTE at work.
Another way to understand CTE is to remember that it can prepare your students for a future in one of the 16 Career Clusters that have been defined, and tied to CTE studies, by the U.S. Department of Education
The Career Clusters are:
- Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources
- Architecture & Construction
- Arts, A/V Technology & Communications
- Business Management & Administration
- Education & Training
- Government & Public Administration
- Health Science
- Hospitality & Tourism
- Human Services
- Information Technology
- Law, Public Safety, Corrections & Security
- Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
- Transportation, Distribution & Logistics
A Career Clusters Exam, which can help your students discover potential career options within those clusters, is available online.
Note that those are umbrella categories that contain a number of specific jobs. The Health Sciences cluster, for example, contains a variety of jobs that can include being a physician, an x-ray technician, or a physical therapist. Similarly, the Governance & Public Administration cluster includes careers like being a city planner, a mayor of a small town, and even the manager of a municipal recycling program.
But as you can tell by looking at those very concrete career areas, CTE is specific, not theoretical.
What is the unifying thread that ties all those different careers together? It is simply that your students can find educational programs to prepare them for specific positions in the world of work. Your students might find those educational resources in high schools, community colleges, trade schools, online, or in four-year colleges or even graduate schools. (Even some middle schools are starting to decide that some of their programs fall into the realm of CTE.)
To summarize . . .
Through CTE, students train for a specific job, or maybe more generally for a career in one of the 16 Career Clusters. Then they begin their careers. It is a very practical way to plan for, and launch, a career.
There Are Even Conferences about CTE
If you are still thinking that CTE is theoretical rather than practical, you might want to investigate what happened recently at the 55th Annual National Leadership and Skills Conference.
To quote from the conference’s agenda,
“ . . . we can now provide a path to other professional certifications and pave the way ahead for our future workforce. Assessments parallel SkillsUSA’s successful philosophy of hands-on, authentic methods. The system helps instructors prove the benefit of their programs and helps students develop rewarding careers.”
And that is only one of the many conferences that are helping young people think in new ways about building their careers through CTE-focused learning.
How Can You Match Your Students to CTE Programs that Are Right for Them?
One essential step is to get to know the students you are teaching or counseling – to talk to them about their interests and ambitions.
Another way is to encourage students to take career aptitude tests. Here are some that are available online:
Aptitude-Test.com – This is a portal that gives links to a large selection of tests that evaluate abstract reasoning, math abilities, verbal aptitude and other skills.
123 Career Test – This interactive quiz explores basic preferences about working. Do you like to work outdoors, for example? How about in an office? Based on responses, the test recommends careers to consider.
iPersonic® Career Test – There are only four questions to answer. The quiz is fun and only requires a few minutes of your time.
Princeton Review Career Quiz – This quiz, from the powerhouse Princeton Review, takes about 10 minutes to complete. There are 24 either/or questions, like “Would you rather be an auditor or a musician?” After you answer them, the quiz suggests careers to consider.
Truity Holland Code Career Test – This quiz asks how much you enjoy performing specific tasks, like tracking expenses or teaching. Like the Princeton Review quiz, it provides a list of careers to consider.
Work Interest Wizard Test – This quiz asks how often you like to perform various duties, like cleaning equipment or cutting materials, then recommends careers.
Other Factors to Weigh when Matching Your Students to Career Paths
Once your students take one or more of the career assessment tests we list above, there are still more factors to weigh as you help them discover possible careers they could enter after engaging in CTE learning.
Some of those additional factors include:
- Their parents and domestic life.
- Regional factors, including the businesses and industries in the area where they live.
- The subjects they have already studied, and their interest and success in studying them.
- Teachers and mentors who sparked their interest in particular subjects, careers and jobs.
- Internships, summer study programs and other experiences where they explored possible career options.
- Career-specific data such as the number of people entering careers that are of interest, the earning potential, and the regions of the country or world where jobs exist in the field.
- The future security of the job(s) the student is considering, which you can research in the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Information about companies that are hiring in the field and the kind of jobs they are trying to fill.
- The amount and quality of career preparation that are available to the student through your school system and other educational resources.
Exploring these issues helps answer 1) Whether your student has the aptitude for the career area, and; 2) Whether jobs in that career area are available and viable for people who are seeking to work in them.
By balancing and understanding those two issues, you begin to envision just where your student might fit into the world of work.
Organizations that Are Exploring and Researching CTE
If you are involved in providing career counseling to students and would like to know more about CTE, here are some organizations you should get to know:
The Student Research Foundation – Get to know us and the student research we do on career preparation and opportunities in the current job market.
Skills USA – A leader in helping students identify and pursue viable careers. Be sure to investigate this organization’s publications and resources.
Advance CTE – A source of highly useful information about CTE learning, organized by U.S. State.
Corporations Are Eager to Help Students Define Viable Career Paths Too
Why? Simply because they want to cultivate their future employees. After all, the young people who study the appropriate technical and other skills will one day become their employees.
Major American employers have programs in place to support learning:
General Electric offers a variety of internships and other learning programs for students. According to GE, 70% of the students who have taken part in programs in the past are currently employed by the company.
Westinghouse also offers a number of special programs for students and new graduates, many of whom will work for the corporation in the future.
It might interest you to know that corporations like those two are not the only companies that offer specialized educational programs – and college scholarships – for students who will one day enter their workforces. Those varied companies include Deloitte, Fidelity Investments (as well as a wide variety of other investment companies and banks), General Motors, Intel, Starbucks, Procter & Gamble, UPS, and even Hilton Hotels.
Utilizing the Resources of the Student Research Foundation
The research conducted by the Student Research Foundation offers a variety of deep insights into how students are preparing for careers today.
You will want to investigate the findings of the SRF’s Career Pathways and 21st Century Skills study. Here are just two take-aways from the research:
- 70% of high school freshman have thought about their career paths, and that figure rises to 81% by the time they are seniors.
- 71% of all high school students say “my interests” influence their thinking about career paths, and the role of caring adults is also strong (mothers – 36%; fathers – 27%; and teachers – 17%).
In addition to exploring the research that the SRF has completed, you will also want to explore articles that have been published on the Student Research Foundation Blog. Here are some you will want to read as you match your students to promising career options:
- Food Services
- Technical Careers
- Health & Science Careers
- High-Tech Jobs
Where the CTE Jobs Are
Of course, many careers are “hot” today – meaning that they are on everyone’s radar. These are the fields where many jobs are being advertised, and also where young career entrants are launching their professional lives.
Here are some of the most viable areas where jobs are happening today and where, with the right training and experiences, your students can get a strong career start through the CTE approach:
- AI and Machine Learning
- Banking and Financial Services
- City Planning
- Customer Service
- Engineering, including Construction Engineering, Manufacturing Engineering, and Electrical Engineering
- Food Science
- Management and Business Administration
- Public health
- Travel and Hospitality
Perhaps the best way to get an understanding of the CTE process and how it works is to get to know these students who, thanks to a combination of education and applicable experiences, have now started their careers.
Lydia, Age 24, Computerized Travel Systems Developer
Lydia, who attended a public high school in North Carolina, is now working for a company that develops and markets software that is used in the travel and hospitality industries. What factors helped her focus on this specialty?
- Family experiences: Her mother was a travel agent, so travel was part of the fabric of her childhood world view
- Working experiences: Her summer jobs in her mother’s office let her experience how computers were being used to book hotels, airline flights, and more. And while she was in college, she worked as a reservations phone representative for a major hotel chain.
- Education: She studied computer science for two years at a local community college and then transferred to a four-year public university, where she studied business, travel science and computer programming.
- Finding her job: When she saw her job listed, she knew it was just right for her. “Travel, computers, in a growing young firm?” she says, “It was a perfect match for me.”
Max, Age 27, Cybersecurity Penetration Analyst
Max attended a large public high school in New Jersey. Today, he works for a cybersecurity consulting firm. His specialty is, in his words, “thinking like a crook” by trying to hack into company computer systems. If he finds a way to hack in, or tricks an employee into letting him in, he says that he “has done my job.”
- Family experiences: Max’s father is a police detective. “So even when I was little kid,” Max says, “I was thinking like a crimefighter.”
- School experiences: Max’s high school computer studies teacher was a man who moonlighted as a cybersecurity consultant. He got Max a part-time position in the firm. That opened Max’s eyes to the reality that cybersecurity is a viable career option today.
- Education: Max studied cybersecurity at a two-year community college. He has recently returned to college and is working to earn a degree in business, which he expects to earn after three more years of part-time study.
- Finding his job: After completing community college, Max became a cybersecurity analyst at the same company where he was already working. “My former teacher and I still work together,” Max says, “I owe it all to him.”
Carla, Age 30, Physical Therapist
A variety of experiences led Carla, who lives in Minnesota, to select her profession as a physical therapist who specializes in helping athletes recover from injuries.
- School experiences: Carla attended an exclusive private high school, where she was a standout soccer player. But interestingly, playing soccer didn’t lead her to her career, but rather an injury she suffered on the field. “I got clipped by another player, fell, and got a torn meniscus,” she explains. “After surgery, an inspiring physical therapist worked closely with me and actually got me back on the field the following season.”
- Family support: Carla’s mother, a single mom, is a school administrator. Although her career is not healthcare-related, her support for her daughter during her recovery proved to be an inspiration for her daughter.
- Education: Carla studied Physical Therapy at the University of Minnesota and hopes to return to school there and earn a doctorate in the field.
- Finding her job: Carla began working as a physical therapist in a P.T. practice near her home, which led to a job offer and permanent employment.
Petra, Age 26, Industrial Engineer
Petra, who grew up in Kentucky and still lives there, is a production engineer who works for a major automaker. She is responsible for installing, maintaining, and monitoring equipment on a production line. “I wish I were designing robots,” she says with a laugh, “but mostly all I do is watch them.”
- Environmental experiences: Kentucky is a center of automobile manufacturing. Even though neither of her parents worked in the auto industry, “Cars were just part of what was happening where I grew up” she says.
- Family life: Petra’s father, a mail carrier, has a workshop in the basement where he and his daughter spent time repairing lawnmowers, assembling furniture from kits, and generally “tinkering.” Petra’s mom is a homemaker who was a very supportive and involved volunteer at many events and committees throughout her daughter’s years in school.
- Interests: Petra says she was always mechanically inclined. Like many students who later enter engineering fields, she states that when she was a youngster, she liked to take devices apart and then put them back together.
- School experiences: Interestingly, the regional high school Petra attended did not offer many technical courses. She had a high school experience that she describes as “typically southern,” which centered on cheerleading, playing softball, and socializing with friends. “If there had been a robotics club in my school in those days,” she says, “you can bet I would have been part of it.”
- Education: At the large state school she attended, Petra was immediately drawn to engineering. (“I guess it was all that tinkering that I did with my dad,” she says.) And because cars were being assembled in the area of the country where she lived, she naturally gravitated toward that.
- Finding her job: After her first year of college, Petra took a summer job working at GM’s Bowling Green assembly plant. She did so well, and was so popular, that she was invited back in the three following summers. That led to a job offer. “Everything just kind of fit together,” she says.
Where Do Your Students Fit in the World of Career and Technical Education?
As you have discovered while you were reading this article, CTE is not any one thing, but many.
It is like a big cloud that is now hovering over the worlds of education, employment . . . and opportunity for young people. Like any cloud, it is sometimes amorphous in shape and hard to understand.
But like any cloud, it rains down on the landscape below. Where CTE is the issue, it rains opportunity.