Career and Technical Education: Not your grandpa’s vocational education

Career and technical education (CTE) programs are ready to be taken seriously. Gone is the vocational education of years past that was generally interpreted as second-best and known to channel certain populations of students into skilled trades. Your grandpa’s vo-tech got a makeover, and it looks pretty darn good. But there’s still a challenge: getting parents and students to buy-in to the new look.

CTE today teaches both academic and technical skills and provides training for valuable and financially rewarding careers such as manufacturing, construction, and welding. These sophisticated careers are not dirty and dangerous. They are not a dumping ground. So, why is there still a lingering skepticism about the value of these career pathways?

It takes time to break free from a dark history. CTE is still haunted by its past of tracking students, but there is a national effort to shed this negative image. (Note: The Center’s “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” project is one of these efforts. Its name does not hint at or endorse a return to tracking, nor is it meant to discourage someone from pursuing a baccalaureate degree if that is his or her dream. The project’s goal is, however, as the Center’s Founder Mitch Pearlstein wrote, to inform “wide swaths of people, including parents, about the virtues of alternatives to four-year degrees—doing so, it’s critical to add, while recognizing a lot of remembered bad history of shunting many low-income and minority boys and girls into dead-end, non-academic tracks.”)

It takes time to ensure the success stories of CTE and its associated careers aren’t just well-kept secrets. Middle schools, high schools, higher education institutions, and employers all need to be involved in telling young people and parents about CTE options. Minnesota has a wealth of examples highlighted on the Center’s “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” website, and there’s a need now more than ever to help position and prepare young adults for a future in this type of work.

I recently toured the Saint Paul College (SPC) campus, and I was blown away by its top-notch facility and the wide variety of hands-on learning experiences it offers. CTE programs range from cabinetmaking to CNC toolmaking and from robotic welding to pipefitting.

SPC is both a community and technical college, offering students access to STEM programs, Business programs, and Health Science programs, just to name a few. Students interested in becoming a nursing assistant, practical nurse, or patient care technician learn these skills in hospital rooms modeled exactly after real health care facilities. “Patients” in the room are controlled by a computer and can be given anything from a cold to a fever to a heart attack for students to respond to and treat. The use of simulation provides students a dynamic educational and realistic technological approach to patient care. Saint Paul College’s President Rassoul Dastmozd is committed to leading the way in career and transfer education and raising economic mobility to meet the needs of Minnesota’s future workforce.

It’s projected the number of unfilled jobs in Minnesota could explode from 60,000 to as much as 280,000 by the end of 2022. Most of these in-demand jobs will be skilled technical positions that drive economic growth and mobility. Cross-sector collaboration will improve the misalignment between labor force supply and demand. Collaboration will also continue dismantling the archaic two-tiered perception of alternative education options.

When these options include robotics kits, laser cutters, and 3-D printing, one thing is for sure: Grandpa’s shop class is a thing of the past.