The stigma remain in career-tech, but here are some solutions

Special thanks to my friend and colleague Susan Hardy Brooks, a veteran of marketing career-technical education (she spent a decade doing it at one of Oklahoma’s premiere institutions, Frances Tuttle Technology Center). Below, she writes a column for my e-newsletter 1635 about the “stigma” that follows career-technical education, and offers some sage advice about continuing to breakthrough that misperception.

Oklahoma is known for having one of the best career tech systems in the country. Even with a stellar reputation among educators and business leaders, some people still consider it “for someone else’s child.”

Since I took my first school PR job in what was then called a “vo-tech” school in the early 1980’s, significant progress has been made to help students, parents and taxpayers understand that the programs are much more than “hands-on-learning” or an alternative to college. It was a hard-fought battle based on research that led Oklahoma’s system to transition to a “career tech” system and “technology centers.” And even today, you still hear the dreaded “vo-tech” come out of someone’s mouth occasionally.

I contacted Paula Bowles, Chief Communications and Marketing Officer for Oklahoma CareerTech, to find out how they are advancing the brand.

“The perception of career and technology education in Oklahoma has made strides in the past 10 years as we have created statewide campaigns emphasizing the value CareerTech education brings to our state’s economy. One research study revealed that our full-time graduates of technology centers, only a portion of the individuals we serve, annually add $3.5 billion to the state’s economy.

We also have focused on the myriad of opportunities for CareerTech students. One such area is the launch of STEM programs in middle schools, high schools and at the technology centers. Student from our pre-engineering, biomedical sciences, computer science and biotechnology academies have gone on to prestigious universities and military academies to enter into careers as physicists, aerospace engineers, physicians, veterinarians and other high-demand career fields. We have used graduates in these and other areas to tell the story that CareerTech prepares you for successful college experiences and challenging careers.

Primary targets for our statewide marketing campaigns are key opinion leaders and state legislators. Our key messages focus on the value CareerTech adds to our state’s economy by serving individuals with paths to high-wage careers and by serving more than 7,000 companies in helping them increase sales, improve productivity, reduce costs and expand operations.”

While I believe the brand/reputation of career tech has greatly improved, the stigma still lingers. Communications and marketing professionals play a vital role in challenging the misconceptions every day. Here are some things that can help move the needle in the right direction.

  1. Rebranding. The name change really got the positive momentum started. We know that a brand is much more than a logo or name. In the case of career tech, the name change more accurately reflects the modern, high tech opportunities available to students.
  2. Speaking with one clear voice. There is power in staying highly focused on a few key concepts and messages that are repeated consistently across multiple communication channels (traditional and digital), multiple times and in multiple ways. It takes planning and self-discipline, but the echo-chamber it creates assures that you are getting through the noise.
  3. Doing collaborative marketing. In Oklahoma, a statewide PR and Marketing Council was created in the 80’s to enhance the system’s statewide reach. The Council still exists today. The marketing directors at each tech center collaborate with the state agency to develop an annual campaign and budget, with each center kicking in dollars to support it. Pooling resources opens up marketing opportunities individual centers couldn’t tackle on their own, such as branded advertising on televised NBA games.
  4. Growing partnerships with K-12 and higher education. A big shift in improving career tech’s reputation occurred as tech centers developed partnerships that provided pathways to careers in biotechnology, engineering and other respected careers and majors. Combined with agreements that allow career tech students to earn college credit while still in high school, these programs and initiatives continue to grow and positively impact the system’s reputation.
  5. Reframing the message. People, particularly school counselors, often assume that choosing career tech means not choosing college. Not true. Career tech isn’t an “either-or” proposition. Reframing the message, we now discuss career tech as “a pathway to college.”
  6. Seeing is believing. Getting key stakeholders on career tech campuses is the real game-changer for changing perceptions. Whether it is legislators, educators, counselors, parents or students, once they see the amazing campuses and hear the amazing stories from students, they are sold. Experiences beat words every time.
  7. Tapping students as ambassadors. Students listen to other students. Provide career tech students with a great experience, then equip them to become your best ambassadors
  8. Marketing economic impact. One of the reasons behind the success of Oklahoma’s statewide campaign is the focus on how career tech impacts the economy. Adding $3.5 billion to the state’s economy annually is a major selling point. Consider doing at economic impact study for your tech center, region or state.

One thing I know for sure. As long as the old stigma for career tech still lingers, our friends who do career tech marketing and PR definitely have job security.

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