Do CTE classes actually prepare students for the workforce?

Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs are focused on teaching students the skills needed to work in or train for specific occupations. Students like the opportunity to learn specific skills in industries that interest them, and employers report CTE students are more prepared for work than their peers who do not take CTE.

In Arizona’s fiscal year (FY) 2020 budget, the state put $10 million towards Industry Certifications earned by CTE students in Arizona high schools, and more than $20 million to expand CTE programs in Arizona community colleges.

“Our education leaders are creating the ‘shop’ classes of the 21st century. It’s called Career and Technical Education, CTE. Today, students in these programs are training to become nurses, pilots, pharmacists, bankers, firefighters and software developers, all before graduation,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said in his 2019 State of the State address.

The Association for Career and Technical Education estimates that for every $1 of government funding towards CTE, taxpayers can earn as much as $12.20 in benefits, meaning Arizonans could see almost $122 million in economic benefits from this program that rewards high schools when their students earn credentials confirming that they are ready to enter specific industries such as manufacturing and coding or to enter advanced training.

But how well does this “proven to work” educational philosophy align with local labor markets?

Education reform think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute embarked to determine just that in a recent study of CTE programs in cities across America. Their findings were that CTE courses provide the proper training, but a majority of students do not take classes that are always aligned to the local city’s top industries.

“I think what we can see is that there’s very few kids in the Phoenix area, or nationally, who are doing anything close to a serious career preparation program while they’re still in high school,” Fordham Institute President Michael J. Petrilli said.

In Phoenix, more than half of current jobs are in four industry clusters: Business Management & Administration; Hospitality & Tourism; Marketing; and Architecture & Construction; but almost half of the CTE courses taken by Phoenix high schoolers are in Health Science; Arts, A/V Technology & Communications; and Business Management & Administration.

Phoenix high school students are much more likely to concentrate, or take three or more courses in the same field, in Health Science and STEM than the rest of the U.S., but are somewhat less likely to concentrate in IT and Architecture & Construction where there is currently high demand.

“You do see some kids concentrating,” Petrilli said. “[But] three courses over the course of your junior and senior year is…certainly not as intense as you would see in most countries overseas where people might be doing apprenticeships and spending a big chunk of their time getting trained on trade and really getting ready to go into the workforce.”

The lack of “intensive” training is one reason why some Arizona workforce development experts are supportive of the governor’s investment in industry certifications.

Allison Gilbreath, executive director of the Arizona Manufacturers Council (AMC), said industry certifications take students from passing a CTE class to being able to prove they are ready to get to work or engage in more technical training.

“Many industries, including manufacturers, look for job applicants that have this type of credential to demonstrate readiness for today’s high-tech jobs. It’s an obvious next step after completing a CTE concentration,” Gilbreath said.

Gilbreath went on to disagree with some of the report’s findings, saying while the AMC agrees Arizona needs more students to be engaged in the manufacturing training pipeline, it should not be categorized as “low-wage.”

“The average manufacturing wage in Arizona easily exceeds the state average. This is one reason why we were so supportive of the $10 million in the budget for industry certifications. We definitely need more students to go in to high-wage jobs, but manufacturing and industry certifications are a prerequisite for many employers,” she said.

While the training might not be as “intense” as other countries, data supports that students who concentrate in CTE courses perform better in a postsecondary educational setting and the labor market.

During his 2019 State of the State Address, Ducey claimed that 99 percent of students enrolled in a CTE class graduate high school, which is much higher than the rate of their peers not enrolled in CTE classes.

The report also found CTE concentrations are “highly skewed” towards higher-paying career fields.

“Health Science; STEM; and Business Management & Administration account for almost half of CTE course-taking and more than 60 percent of CTE concentrations. In contrast, almost no Phoenix students take courses in low-wage clusters such as Hospitality & Tourism and Manufacturing,” Fordham Institute reported.

STEM and Health Science accounts for half of concentrations, but only 8 percent of local employment, while Manufacturing; Marketing; and Hospitality & Tourism account for one-third of local employment, yet almost no Phoenix students concentrate in them.

According to Jim Rounds, a local economist, Arizona has to be careful about training students for low wage jobs.

“While all work has value and we certainly need workers for our bustling service industries, if there’s going to be additional investment in CTE, we need to ensure a return on taxpayer investment,” Rounds said.

“Leaders who are involved in education and workforce development in Phoenix should consider how more students might be encouraged to focus on underserved clusters with strong current and future job prospects,” the report said.

The Fordham Institute found that states like Arizona can improve on intentionally connecting local business, industrial, and secondary and postsecondary education sectors to better integrate what is taught in high school CTE programs to align to local market workforce demands.

To view the full report, click here.

Emily Richardson

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