PathwaysAs New Jersey emerges from the deep recession, our state faces an urgent imperative to better align public education with workforce needs.

Employers face a growing need for skilled workers at all levels. Many struggle to find employees with the academic, technical and career readiness skills needed to fill current and future jobs.

Raising academic expectations will not solve this problem unless combined with effective strategies to engage students, increase achievement, and provide multiple pathways to a successful career.

Career and technical education (CTE) sits squarely at the crossroads of education reform and economic growth. Employers agree that CTE has tremendous promise to address student engagement and achievement, as well as and the demand for a well-prepared workforce pipeline.

That is why employers throughout the state are launching the New Jersey Employer Coalition for Technical Education. This coalition will promote high quality CTE programs, engage employers in program development, and support investments in CTE programs that address critical workforce needs and place students on a pathway to academic and career success.

A new view of success

The current theory of education has emphasized a four-year college degree as the only pathway to success. Yet many well-paying career pathways can be launched with an industry certificate or an associate’s degree. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projects that approximately 55 million jobs will be filled by 2020, and nearly two-thirds of those will not require a four-year degree. Roughly 17 million jobs will be filled by individuals with a certificate, associate’s degree or other sub-baccalaureate training.

Many of these positions will be in well-paying middle-skill occupations that align with New Jersey’s key industry sectors: advanced manufacturing; health care; financial services; technology and entrepreneurship; life sciences; transportation, distribution and logistics; hospitality and tourism; and construction, utilities and energy. And many of these jobs will pay as much, or more, than those held by the average bachelor’s degree recipient.

“Pathways to Prosperity,” a 2011 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, examined workforce needs and college outcomes and concluded that a narrowly defined “college for all” goal – one that does not include a much stronger focus on career-oriented programs and work-readiness skills like problem-solving and teamwork - seems doomed to fail.  Troubling statistics show that many students have difficulty completing a degree in four years, if at all. And many who do complete their degree programs graduate without a clear career focus or marketable entry-level skills.

The Harvard report urges the nation to increase its focus on career and technical education, and invest in creating “pathways to prosperity” that will give students a roadmap for continued education and career success. It states that an earlier focus on career-related learning will reduce the cost and time necessary to complete a degree and will likely boost college completion rates, and it calls for an expanded role for employers in developing these pathways to ensure alignment with industry needs and provide more work-based learning opportunities.

Today’s CTE programs

Vocational-technical school student

Unlike many other states, New Jersey already has a strong system of 21 county vocational-technical school districts that provide the kinds of employer-driven CTE programs highlighted in the Harvard Report. These 21st-century CTE programs have evolved dramatically from the “vo-tech” programs of the past: they integrate rigorous academic content and technical skills to prepare students for college and careers, not just for a specific job.

Many local high schools also offer high quality CTE programs, especially in areas such as business, arts and digital media, and computer-assisted design (CAD).

Today’s CTE programs challenge and engage students, enabling them to identify career options and plan postsecondary studies with a clear focus and direction. Many of these are linked to postsecondary programs, offering college-level courses during high school that enable students to graduate with college credits and industry-approved credentials.

Employers work with county vocational-technical schools to keep programs aligned with industry needs and to develop new programs that address emerging demands. Our coalition will seek to engage more employers with local educators to expand opportunities for students and strengthen the pipeline of career ready graduates.

While CTE has always been an option for students who plan to enter the workforce after high school, today’s programs are in high demand by college-bound students, too.

More than 70 percent of county vocational-technical school graduates go on to college or advanced technical training with the distinct advantage of a career focus. They often begin their postsecondary training with a head start on a degree or occupational credential. Graduates who enter the workforce directly have the skills they need for a lifetime of continued learning and training.

Vocational-technical school studentNew programs like health sciences, engineering, business and finance, and information technology are helping to change the outdated stigma of vocational education as an option for less capable students. And recent statewide data shows that in the aggregate, CTE students outperform their peers on the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) in both math and English language arts (ELA).  According to High School Proficiency Assessment data for 2011-12, economically disadvantaged and special needs students who enroll in a CTE program often show the most significant gains.

But misperceptions persist, and educators have a critical role in helping students, parents and colleagues recognize the tangible value that CTE adds to the high school experience: industry credentials, work-based experiences, college credits, and a career focus that will provide students with multiple pathways to success--both in college and in the workplace.

The Employer Coalition encourages middle and high school teachers and counselors to learn more about the CTE programs offered in your county. And the national celebration of Career and Technical Education Month in February is the perfect time to focus on CTE. You can:

  • Visit the county vocational-technical school(s) in your county so that you will have a full understanding of the programs and opportunities available to your students
  • Ask students to research career pathways and the education and training required for entry-level positions and advancement
  • Encourage students that you think might flourish in a CTE program to explore their options.

While New Jersey’s excellent school system consistently scores near the top on national measures, a four-year college degree is not the best option for every student. Today’s economy demands a high level of literacy, as well as strong mathematical, critical-thinking, problem-solving, and communications skills, but focusing solely on academics does not address student engagement or the technical and work readiness needs of employers.

As economic recovery takes root and the state begins to implement new educational standards, it is time for New Jersey to make a significant commitment to expanding CTE opportunities to meet workforce needs and offer all students – no matter what their career interests are – multiple pathways to success.

New Jersey needs a new statewide partnership involving business, education, government, and students and their parents, to support policy and investment that will expand career and technical opportunities, shrink the skills gap, and ensure New Jersey’s future economic prosperity.

Educators are an important part of this effort. The New Jersey Employer Coalition for Technical Education encourages you to take a new look at today’s opportunities during CTE Month. And we ask you to keep the future career pathways of your students’ front and center in your efforts to make every student “college and career ready.”

Melanie Willoughby is senior vice president of the N.J. Business and Industry Association. For more information about CTE in New Jersey, visit www.careertechnj.org. For information about the NJ Employer Coalition for Technical Education, go to www.careertechnj.org/nj-employer-coalition-for-technical-education/.