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Career Technical Education: What It Can and Cannot Do in Building a Next Middle Class

By Michael Bernick, San Francisco

At community colleges throughout California, Career Technical Education (CTE) is attracting sharply increased funding and growth. Focused on training for the “new technician” jobs, CTE offers promise of building a new middle class.

Is this so? How widespread an impact can CTE have? What are these “new technician” jobs? How many “new technician” jobs really are out there?

A new report, “Career Technical Education: Reducing Wage Inequality and Sustaining California’s Innovation-Based Economy” from the Center for Jobs and Human Capital at the Milken Institute, helps us sort through some of these questions. The author, Ross DeVol (above) is the chief research officer at the Institute, and the lead on the widely-cited “Best-Performing Cities: Where America’s Jobs Are Created” annual series. He has a long time interest in technical education: his father was head of the Ohio post-secondary vocational education for over two decades.

The new technician jobs that are the focus of CTE training span sectors and occupations. In Health Care, for example, CTE programs include Emergency Medical Technician, Phlebotomist, Medical Assistant, Radiology Technician, Respiratory Therapist; in Advanced Manufacturing, the new technician jobs include Bio Science Technician,  Electro Mechanical Technician, Team Assembler. What is common among these new technician jobs and many others is that they usually start at over $40,000 per year with opportunities for wage progression, are within the reach of adults with at least eighth grade reading and math levels, and can be mastered within a one or two year period.

Here in California, the state has funded a CTE-based Career Pathways Trust initiative at over $250 million for each of the past two years. It also has funded a new CTE-related apprenticeship initiative with the community colleges and CTE-related curriculum development, equipment, courses and internships

DeVol argues that this CTE momentum not only should be continued, but expanded, for several reasons. First, is the employment dynamic: DeVol estimates that within the next decade,  30% of all job openings will require postsecondary education below the level of a four year degree. Job openings for new technicians will be driven by baby boomer retirements as well as technology and economics driving tasks to para-professionals and away from higher-paying professionals.

Beyond employment,  DeVol draws on previous Milken Institute research on regional economies to argue the relation between the investment in CTE and growth of regional GDP per capita. Further, he argues that CTE investment will have greater impact than other higher education investment in reducing income inequality, writing,  “While the state should support attendance and graduation at UC and CSU, increased funding for postsecondary career technical education will have a more immediate impact on reducing wage inequality.”

Despite his enthusiasm for CTE, DeVol is careful to note that the CTE programs need to be carefully designed. This means working closely with the local Workforce Development Board that understands the local labor market, emphasizing strong industry participation, and on-going job placement efforts.

Indeed, during the past few years, more and more CTE projects are arising that possess these traits. One such project is the Growth Sector engineering technician pathways at San Jose-Evergreen community colleges, that is tied to major employers in the Santa Clara area (NASA, Lawrence Livermore laboratory), utilizes intensive math and literacy, learning communities and career exploration, and specializes in job placement.

DeVol ‘s latest research is valuable in drawing our attention to CTE and its potential in providing a new mid-level of jobs. However, two caveats might be added about the need to monitor CTE funds going forward, and the need to place CTE impacts in broader employment context.

  • Already, CTE money is being spread around for conferences, committees,  and bureaucracies, as well as for ill-defined “system orientation” and  “collaboration”. This is common in higher education: under the rubric of “system building”, educators and consultants are paid to go to meetings, write Venn diagrams, develop Powerpoints. A stronger filter is needed to direct the money to specific training.
  • CTE, by itself, will have  limited impact on overall employment and income levels. The number of new technician jobs is sufficient in number for only a  portion of job seekers– and among these job seekers, there will be many who have neither the proclivity nor abilities to be, say, a Respiratory therapist or Bio Science Technician. Regarding income distribution, CTE does not address the lower wages associated with the 40% or more of jobs that are below the “new technician” jobs.

CTE should be a strategy going forward in building a next middle class. But it should be one of several strategies.

Career Technical Education: What It Can and Cannot Do in Building a Next Middle Class