The Evolution of Vocational Education
Certifications, apprenticeships, two-year degrees, technical training – this is what we mean when we talk about “vocational education.” But it’s not the same as it was in our parents' generation. Today's vocational education is about career-focused, highly technical skills development, with organizations working hand in hand with educators to create curriculum that supports workforce needs.
There's a sort of outdated notion of what career and vocational education looks like. Some still think of it as the shop class in the back of the high school.
Even the White House is behind an evolution of vocational education in America, reframing it as a pathway toward career success, instead of it being thought of as a fall back plan for people who can't cut it in college. Last July the American Graduation Initiative was proposed, with the goal of investing in community colleges to help American workers get the skills and credentials they need to succeed. $2 billion has also been earmarked over the next four years to improve community college and career training offerings.
"There's a sort of outdated notion of what career and vocational education looks like. Some still think of it as the shop class in the back of the high school," says Sean Lynch, legislative and public affairs manager of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), the largest national education association dedicated to the advancement of education that prepares youth and adults for careers. "It's come a long way since then, preparing students for a lot of positions in growing fields." CTE programs have evolved to allow students to prepare for their careers via hands on learning that allows them direct entry into the workforce, while also opening doors to continuing their education at some point down the line, he adds.
Changing Employer Perceptions
Although there is the conventional wisdom that says you can't make it today without a traditional four-year degree, some employers realize that notion could mean overlooking a qualified and passionate talent pool. "Many employers are becoming increasingly engaged with CTE programs, too," says Lynch. "They are more invested in the process of educating, and increasingly coming to the table and displaying a real commitment to getting involved, offering internships and apprenticeships, and more," says Lynch.
Skilled craftspeople are in high demand throughout the country and often can command a six-figure salary.
One such organization is Day & Zimmermann, a company that specializes in construction and engineering, staffing and defense solutions for leading corporations and governments around the world. Its Engineering Construction & Maintenance group annually employees more than 23,000 workers who have trade skills, including, welders, pipe fitters, valve technicians, and electricians.
"Skilled craftspeople are in high demand throughout the country and often can command a six-figure salary," says Guy Starr, president of the company's DZ Atlantic business unit. "There is also plenty of opportunity for rapid advancement as the boomers retire. Trade and vocational programs typically take less time to earn a certification, which gets the person into a paying job faster. This is a very attractive option for a lot of people."
From an employer point of view, filling in-demand positions quickly is good business. However, the most common barrier to filling jobs is that candidates don't have the technical competencies required, according to the Talent Shortage Survey 2014 by ManpowerGroup. As such, says the report, 13 percent of US employers who are exploring new sources of talent say they are partnering with educational institutions to align curriculum to their current needs.
Career Fields Powered by Vocational Study
Take a look at some of the industry sectors for which non-traditional education programs of study are fueling the workforce:
Health care office management
By 2020, 82 percent of health care jobs will require some postsecondary education, including 25 percent requiring an associate degree, and 17 percent requiring some college or certificate program completion, says Lynch, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data. "What's great is that credentials and degrees are stackable," he explains, meaning that a vocational program can get you started, and then you can build upon that educational foundation by adding short-term certificate programs or other studies as you advance in your career.
Employers consistently report that it is a challenge to find candidates who know how to work as part of a team, use creative problem solving, or demonstrate other skills that can only be learned via experiential learning, says Lynch. Vocational programs prepare students by combining classroom lessons with real business simulations. Lynch describes one CTE program in Illinois in which students come to class every day dressed like they were going to work. "They interact with entrepreneurs and professionals from the local community, talk about things like marketing plans and how to integrate technology into business strategies," he says.
Research indicates that IT positions are going to generate more than double the national average wage, making it an attractive field, especially since there are so many paths to entry. "By 2018, the majority of jobs will require credentials and certifications, and skill demonstration," says Lynch, but that can come in many forms, including immersive vocational programs, certificates or associate degrees.
Skilled trade workers are the number one hardest job types to fill, according to the BLS. "We don't have a labor shortage in this country; we have a skilled labor shortage," affirms Starr. "We need parents and school counselors at the high school level to become better educated about the opportunities that exist so that they can guide children on all the available opportunities to succeed."
As such, increasing collaboration between the job sector and educational providers is key for filling in this skills gap. "The overwhelming majority of students in an auto program obtain skills to move to a career immediately following completion," says Lynch.
Training for your Future
No matter the industry you wish to break into, there is likely an alternative educational path to take if a four-year degree commitment is not part of your game plan. And once you get your start, there's no telling how far you can soar. "Vocational programs can facilitate long-term career advancement," says Starr. "We have a number of people within our own organization who have come up through the trades to hold leadership and executive management positions. If you're dedicated to being a life-long learner there are plenty of opportunities for growth."
- Sean Lynch, legislative and public affairs manager of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), interviewed by author, 3/25
- Guy Starr, president of Day & Zimmermann Atlantic, interviewed by author via email, 3/27