It’s time we talk about career-tech
How a decades-long stigma is holding back students from opportunity
By Shane Haggerty
While vocational education evolved into career-technical education over the past 20 years or so, our society’s impressions and beliefs about it did not. A stigma of what “type” of education it was and what “type” of student belonged in it has been a battle that has been fought — albeit unsuccessfully — for years by those who work in the field.
But the facts stand out:
- The average graduation rates are higher amongst career-technical students, 93% compared to 80% for non-career-tech students
- More than 75% of secondary career-tech students pursued postsecondary education shortly after high school, and four out of five of them had earned a credential or were still enrolled two years later.
It isn’t that those of us who work in career-tech think college is the goal of education, and that’s the impression we want to change. We don’t. In fact, we are proud of the fact that we are designed specifically around addressing skills gaps and workforce needs. We are proud to prepare high school students to be able to go straight into the workforce at a higher level of skill that earns them a much higher level of pay. This is just as important as college. Why?
- About 70% of 2013 graduates left college with an average of $28,400 in student loan debt. In Ohio, the average student loan debt was $29,090.
- In 2018, Harvard University predicts only 33% of all jobs will require a 4-year degree or more, while the majority of jobs will require skills and training at the credential or associate’s degree level.
- The true ratio of jobs in our economy is 1:2:7. For every job that requires a master’s degree or more, two jobs require a bachelor’s degree, and more than half a dozen jobs require a credential or two-year degree. This ratio is across all industries and was the same in 1950, 1990, and will be the same in 2030.
There is a broader conversation that needs to happen in our society, which took on the mentality that a four-year college degree is the true destination and sign of success. This emphasis on the four-year college traditional pathway, being prepped by enrolling in AP classes and in the traditional classroom setting, has led to a very real disconnect. It has led to a generation of students drowning in student loan debt, working in jobs that pay well below what their degrees cost because there weren’t many job prospects in the first place, and very much struggling because they were never given all educational pathway options in high school.
We, like probably every career center in Ohio and throughout the nation, are constantly fighting an uphill battle to change perceptions about career-tech. Yes, our students are being prepared for a job while enrolled here. Why is that somehow looked down upon? When did we degrade the value of work? When did we start thinking that mindlessly spending $100,000+ on a college education just for the “experience” was our top priority over truly preparing students for all options?
What we are most proud of in career-tech is that college and work are not an either/or option. They are intertwined. We truly want to take all levels of students and set them on a pathway that gives them the option to go straight into the workforce better prepared, with industry credentials, and with the skills that can help them earn high wages. This may involve postsecondary education, too — a two-year or a four-year path. And, it may not. We value all pathways. Shouldn’t we all?
At Tolles Career & Technical where I’ve worked as the director of marketing for the past four years, we aggressively launched a rebranding and communication effort to tackle perceptions that continue to keep students and parents from even exploring these options. Further, we have taken steps to expand our reach through the addition of programs within our partnering K-12 school districts and with the addition of early career-technical programs, including complete 7–12 pathways. What were the results over these past few years? An increase in enrollment of 23% and an increase in applications to attend up 35% over the past three years compared to the previous three.
Our decisions were part of an effort to create tomorrow’s career center today, and that includes non-traditional ways to deliver career-technical education. What are these best practices and strategies you can replicate in your efforts?
- Brand Matters. School districts often pay little attention to their brands. What does your community think and feel about what you stand for? Do you even know? Not only should you pay attention to the “look” you are putting out there, but also the narrative of the student experience.
- Messaging Matters. What do you want to stand for? For us, we seemingly were willing to accept, for years, the notion that career-technical education was “lesser” than other forms of preparation for life after high school. This had more to do with the confusing messaging being received by families. It is important to decide what message you want to get across and to share it consistently.
- Programming Matters. We knew we needed to reach students where they were at if we wanted to grow. This involved being open to striking up strong partnerships and being open to moving our programs beyond the confines of our campus. This meant placing programs within the buildings of our partners. In the past several years, Tolles has placed 18 programs in our partner districts, serving an additional 850 students with career-technical training.
- Timing Matters. We took the initiative in putting early career-tech programming in partner districts in high-demand areas of engineering and manufacturing, marketing and logistics, agriculture bioscience, IT, teaching professions, and entrepreneurship. We are then implementing freshman and sophomore bridge programs in many of these fields to create complete 7–12 career pathways.
Is career-technical education for everyone? No. But, parents and students should be aware of it as a real option for what it can really do, not for what an antiquated view of it suggests and falsely promotes.
It is ultimately up to all of us to do better educating parents and students about all pathways. There is a skills shortage in many industries, skills gaps mismatching degrees with talents needed for jobs, a mountain of growing debt that students can’t repay. It’s time for an honest discussion.
I’d invite you to see how eight of our graduates developed their own pathways by watching our documentary, Landed. Then, I’d invite you to reach out to explore our efforts. More than that, I hope you will help lead efforts to make this a movement that changes the perception of career-tech and makes it a leading pathway to solving our growing skills gap.
Shane Haggerty is the director of marketing for Tolles Career & Technical Center in Plain City, OH.