CAREER Technical Education, formerly known as vocational education, has been a neglected part of America’s educational system for decades. It used to be widely available to high school students who did not plan on attending college, but it was largely abandoned over complaints that it offered a second-rate education and placed students in rigid “tracks” that made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to pursue a college degree.

But times have changed. Many college graduates with large student loans are underemployed, while high school graduates with licenses or certifications in skilled trades earn more.

Yet CTE is still, in some quarters, considered an inferior education. And that antiquated notion has to change.

Earlier this month, the National Center for Educational Statistics released nationally representative data from 2016 showing only 4 percent of adults gained valuable work experience as a part of a high school program.

But 68 percent of those who gained work experience participated in some kind of formal post-secondary program, such as an internship, apprenticeship, clerkship, residency, practicum or other on-the-job training.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. Michael Wooten, deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education, told members of the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber last week: “CTE is now enjoying its day in the sun. Business owners can’t get enough qualified employees.”

The mismatch between the number of college graduates and available jobs can be boiled down to the fact that most institutions of higher learning do not consider CTE to be part of their mission.

“Universities and colleges, and oftentimes community colleges, see their purpose as lifting citizens up and making students into better human beings. There’s nothing in there about jobs,” Wooten told chamber members.

“But students, parents, government and employers care about something different. They want a certification or credential that is tightly coupled to a meaningful career opportunity,” Wooten added, noting that there are “millions of unfulfilled jobs that pay substantial wages and offer upward mobility, but we have not been doing a very good job elevating the stature of the so-called ‘middle skills’—which are not better, not worse, but a different pathway” to career success.

CTE is especially needed in the emerging “gig economy”—which is disrupting the old workforce model with its long-term jobs with benefits, including pensions. That’s increasingly hard to find, even for college graduates with degrees, Wooten said. “More and more we’re seeing an economy that empowers individuals to set up their own gigs,” adding that “we don’t want to just make good employees. We want to make good potential small business owners.”

Wooten acknowledged that parents are one of the biggest obstacles.

“Degreed parents want degreed children,” he explained, even though a CTE program might be a better choice for many students. “We believe our little genius will go to Harvard, Princeton or U.Va., and we’ve talked ourselves into something that’s a bit dysfunctional,” he said, adding that offering CTE classes at the middle school level can help remove the stigma associated with this alternative method of workforce education.

The Free Lance–Star asked Wooten if expanding CTE would limit students’ intellectual horizons. “America has a very nimble system of education,” he replied. “If someone wants to pursue an immediate opportunity in the CTE space and pursue a degree later, they can. But not everybody is ready to go to college at age 18. And there’s no reason you can’t be a plumber and learn Chaucer.”

No reason indeed. And while every American student deserves a quality education that will allow them to contribute to society while supporting themselves and their families, sitting inside a college classroom is not the only way—or for some, even the best way—to get one.

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