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Forget blue collar, it's about 'new collar'

The following article was written by Zenith President and CEO Peter Taylor for CNN

While overall business optimism remains high, leaders of companies big and small across the United States are concerned about the skills gap -- the mismatch between the skills the workforce has to offer and the skills employers need. In fact, more than 50% of Business Roundtable's CEO members report that talent gaps are "already problematic or very problematic" for their companies and industries.

Yet when it comes to preparing our future workforce to meet businesses' needs, there's a prevailing attitude in America that the only higher education credential that matters is a four-year degree. This stigma against alternative education pathways hurts potential students and the nation as a whole.

To change the narrative, we need a collective effort that makes the case for career and technical education (CTE) as a valuable pathway to both significant professional opportunities in today's job market and a critical means to help close our country's skills gap. In making this case, we would be able to overcome a significant roadblock to lower unemployment rates and advance economic growth and global competitiveness. Students who choose the CTE approach also deserve our support and encouragement.

The solution, laid out by a growing number of Fortune 500 business leaders, isn't ensuring that more students receive degrees from four-year institutions. As IBM CEO Ginni Rometty argued at a recent Business Roundtable panel, moving past the paradigm of the four-year degree will change the future of the United States for the better. Rometty has also been a strong proponent of "new collar" jobs that require vocational training but not a four-year degree -- for example, automotive technicians, pharmacy technicians, dental and medical assistants and even jobs in innovative fields like computing, such as cloud computing technicians and service delivery specialists.

Statements like these are helpful in dispelling the stigma against career training and positioning this higher education track as a solution to fill the gap that is causing such angst for business leaders today.

Still, a lack of awareness and understanding prevents career education from being widely viewed as a viable alternative. A recent survey from Advance CTE found that both students in career and technical education programs and their parents express higher-than-average satisfaction with the programs. But many prospective students and families aren't familiar with the career education options available to them. And parents are wary of sending their children into "dirty hands" career fields, even though jobs in those fields can pay well.

To truly change minds and decisively end the stigma, we need a robust and widespread national campaign that speaks to the benefits of CTE for individuals and the economy as a whole. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently recommended a similar effort.

Imagine what could happen if major national corporations leveraged their platforms and put real resources toward this collective effort. Additionally, businesses of all sizes -- individually and through chambers of commerce and trade associations -- need to make it known that they are seeking the type of skills that the graduates trained at the local career college have acquired. To ensure this is the case, employers will need to partner with career educators to identify future workforce training needs and make sure schools are teaching the skills needed to prepare them.

Picture, too, if our elected officials came together on a bipartisan basis to advance policies that promote career education. Broad support for the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which passed through the House last month, is heartening. Swift movement of this legislation to the Senate floor will allow it to have a timely impact. And while the administration's backing of vocational training through its newly announced apprenticeship initiative is promising, we need to see additional, significant commitment from our federal government to both support quality career education and validate the important role it plays in bolstering our workforce and our economy.

And what if K-12 educators led the frontline effort to re-educate the broader public about the value of vocational training? High school teachers and college counselors could offer CTE to their students as a desirable and legitimate path to career success. The messages that educators impart to parents, policymakers and local opinion leaders are critical; we need to talk in terms of the wide range of post-secondary credentials.

Finally, there are the career schools. Too often, career and technical education has contributed to its own stigma by teaching the skills of yesterday rather than the skills of tomorrow. And other oft-reported woes of for-profit vocational schools have negatively colored CTE as a whole. At the most basic level, we must provide a quality offering -- one that teaches both hard skills and soft skills, including critical thinking, allowing our student body to prepare to get a job and succeed in that job. And we need to make sure students who enroll in our programs have the academic and personal on-campus support they need to graduate.

There is no single fix that will eliminate the stigma of career education. But a collective effort that brings together voices and approaches at all levels -- local, state and national -- and across the public and private sectors can absolutely get us there. Together, we can position career education to tackle our growing skills gap, giving students a pathway to economic mobility, businesses a skilled pool of workers to draw from and the US economy a steady stream of the talent needed to compete on a global scale.

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