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Let's make the 2020's the decade of career and technical education

The following article was written by Jeremy Wheaton, President and CEO of ECMC Group, and published by Forbes

Aligning higher education with the needs of the workforce and employers has become a common theme as innovation disrupts the status quo and revolutionizes the labor needs of today's economy. Educational institutions, workers, employers and policymakers are all scrambling to address this sea of change:

  • Colleges are establishing formal relationships with employers to train future employees.
  • Companies are looking to support the training needs of their workforce with tuition assistance, learn-and-earn models and employer-paid certification programs, among others.
  • Current and future workers are trying to navigate a new normal in which career training has become a lifelong endeavor, while simultaneously figuring out how to pay for it.
  • Policymakers are examining how to deploy financial and other resources to programs that work to develop the workforce of today and tomorrow.

Yet, they all agree on one thing: More needs to be done to educate current and future students about the paths to stable, good-paying careers that can be achieved with low levels of student loan debt.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education released data on first-year earnings for thousands of college programs. Despite this effort to improve transparency for students making decisions about their future careers, the data missed the mark by not including results for short-term career and technical education (CTE) programs, which offer degrees in nursing, business management, engineering technology, the skilled trades and much more.

This is especially relevant because two-thirds of the country's more than 7 million open jobs are middle-skill positions that require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree. Yet, only 43% of our country's workers are trained to that level.

We believe CTE will close that gap in this decade, and we are beginning to see several success indicators. These "green shoots" illustrate the potential that can occur when educators, workers, policymakers, business owners and community leaders work to ensure students receive quality, affordable education that prepares them for their career needs while also providing businesses with a steady pipeline of well-trained workers.

Consider Florida, where Governor DeSantis signed an executive order last year to support CTE programs focused on helping the state go from No. 24 to No. 1 in the nation for its workforce and technical training programs by 2030. Most recently, legislation passed to provide scholarships to students in need who want to attend a wide variety of trade and technical schools.

In Georgia, the Department of Education launched an initiative focused on educating the state's future workforce by providing experiences for local students that will prepare them for workplace success, driven by career, technical and agricultural education experiences.

And just within the last month, in his 2020 State of the Union Address, President Trump announced a plan to "offer vocational and technical education in every single high school in America," and his subsequent budget proposal featured a $900 million increase in federal funding for workforce education.

Our organization is seeing many promising indicators as we work to strengthen the education-workforce pipeline through partnerships with employers. This two-way street has illuminated opportunities to enhance our training methods while also enabling employers to improve their offerings for current and future employees.

For instance, we have worked with several companies to align our curriculum and training to ensure our graduates match the performance expectations of real-world employers. This, in turn, has opened the door for us to provide custom training for current employees of those companies.

Given that education can be a tool for improved retention as well as an organization's needs to upskill its workforce, this synergy is one that upgrades the benefits companies can offer their employees and simultaneously fills the business's entry-level workforce pipeline. As new technologies continue to alter the knowledge and training needs of an ever-changing workforce and as lifelong learning becomes more essential for workers to stay competitive in the marketplace, these synergies will become necessary.

For instance, educational institutions and companies involved in higher education financing should consider partnering with employers to expand their human resource benefits by including student loan repayment to assist employees with their student loan debt burden.

In addition, philanthropic entities should recognize the alignment between CTE and their goals by increasing their support, including funding CTE education and research. One model is the CTE Leadership Collaborative, an initiative our foundation designed to bring together diverse perspectives and equip postsecondary CTE leaders with the tools, resources and skills needed to advance knowledge and practice in the field and better prepare future employees for the world of work.

Another example is a recent announcement by JPMorgan Chase, which is investing $75 million to prepare young people for the jobs of today and tomorrow. The career readiness initiative will develop pathways and leverage new policy recommendations to give underserved students access to higher education and real-world work experiences that lead to well-paying, in-demand jobs.

It's important to support efforts to increase visibility for CTE as a postsecondary pathway. In February, the U.S. recognized Career and Technical Education Month, an important initiative for educating and informing current and future workers. The current administration also has indicated that it will be launching a campaign to highlight the different educational pathways available for workforce development.

It is particularly important to reframe CTE: These students are learners who, rather than pursuing a traditional four-year college degree, have chosen CTE as their path to long-term success in a multitude of well-paying careers.

As stakeholders come to understand the need for and value of CTE, I believe in the 2020s, CTE finally will receive the widespread support it needs to thrive.

So, how do we build awareness for CTE's potential? It's up to you and me. Together, let's make the 2020s the decade of CTE by inspiring learners to explore this path while encouraging employers to invest in programs that continue to build the CTE pipeline.

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