In April, NPR’s All Things Considered told the story of 20-year-old Garret Morgan, who parlayed a high school education and additional training as an ironworker into a job that pays “more than $50,000 a year, which is almost certain to steadily increase.” As career and technical education (CTE) gains traction, such stories have become a genre unto themselves: Recent high school graduates with some technical training under their belts earn handsome salaries, while their college-going peers accrue debt.
There are fewer news stories about CTE graduates who land in dead-end jobs or unemployment lines, but it’s a safe bet that such graduates exist: Not every CTE program teaches skills employers demand, and some supply more graduates than the market can absorb. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission, for example, found that such programs are not rare. A 2017 report noted that graduates from cosmetology programs outnumbered projected jobs in that field by roughly 9-to-1; in recreation fields, graduates exceeded jobs by more than 4-to-1. By contrast, in administrative and information support and precision production pathways, the report found that hundreds of jobs go begging for lack of qualified candidates. Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Conference on Community Development recently found similar, if less dramatic, mismatches in the Pittsburgh area.
Perkins V does more than its predecessor to encourage states to favor in-demand occupations and industries. For example, Perkins:
- Requires states and districts applying for federal CTE funding to complete a needs assessment that (among other things) demonstrates how CTE programs are aligned to in-demand industry and occupations.
- Requires states to consult with representatives from business and industry in developing their plans.
- Provides competitive grants for innovative strategies to align skills with workforce demand.
Some states are ahead of the curve. Tennessee’s Department of Education uses workforce data to promote CTE courses or programs of study in areas of high need and discourage or eliminate programs that do not meet employers’ demand for skills. (The state’s higher education commission report cited above represents an early step in that process.) Education Week reports that, at the high school level, “Tennessee has used this system to eliminate 15 programs of study, such as floral design, since 2013.”
The state and regional needs assessments Perkins V requires are becoming easier to deliver as detailed data on job postings and workforce projections grow cheaper and more accessible. Without such data, policymakers, educators and students are left to guess which CTE pathways are most likely to lead to rewarding jobs.