As high school seniors donned their graduation caps in June, they were filled with optimism and eager for the next great chapter in their lives. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 nearly 70 percent of graduating seniors were enrolled in a college or university by fall.
Within the next four years a little more than half of those students will graduate, many with significant debt.
But what about the other 30 percent of high school graduates who do not attend a four year university or college?
Many will enter the workforce immediately, but will be faced with challenges along the way due to a lack of higher education, skills and competencies necessary to climb the ladder of success.
While it sounds grim, there is a solution that can aid students before they ever receive their high school diploma: career and technical education. CTE can open doors for student through a combination of rigorous academics and applied learning experiences, often in real-life workplace settings. Young people have been led to believe that if they did not pursue a four-year degree, then they would face challenges in life.
That narrative needs to change. We must remove these outdated notion from the national dialogue and recognize that our economy is changing, as is the workforce.
Millions of Americans are out of work today, but millions of jobs are unfilled: It’s called the skills gap. This country needs carpenters, plumbers, manufacturers, electricians, programmers and more. These are good-paying, family-sustaining jobs, but we don’t have enough qualified workers who are able or willing to fill these positions.
We need to close the gap between the knowledge our workers possess and the abilities sought by employers. This is also true for the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. According to U.S. News and World Report, in the 2014-15 school year, our nation graduated 30,000 STEM students to fill 230,000 STEM-related jobs.
It was 2006 the last time Congress rewrote the law governing career and technical education. While times have changed markedly in the past decade, our national vision for tech education has remained stuck in place. Now is the time to bring that law up to date.
The House of Representatives recently animously approved our bipartisan legislation to better connect career and technical education with our rapidly changing economy. The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21 st Century Act will help to ensure that the skills and knowledge taught in our high schools and community colleges result in real jobs. And it will give states and localities the flexibility to tailor career and technical education to their local economies and the jobs most in demand.
The bill authorizes more than $7 billion from fiscal years 2018 through 2023 for U.S. Department of Education grants to the states. In return, states would develop programs of study and submit their plans to ED. These plans would include clear performance goals, such as a summary of workforce development activities; a strategic vision and goals for preparing an educated and skilled workforce meeting the needs of employers; how the state will support the recruitment and preparation of teachers; and a description of how all the federal funds will be spent.
The bill would require states, school districts and community colleges to set their own performance targets for secondary and post-secondary career and technical education programs through an open process involving state and local education leaders, parents, students, workforce development boards, community and business representatives and other stakeholders.
Those targets would then be subject to approval by the Department of Education to ensure all students have the opportunity to participate in and benefit from high quality CTE programs. TV star Mike Rowe, who hosts the popular show “Dirty Jobs,” has testified before the House Education and the Workforce Committee on the importance of CTE. Mike shared his experience as a young student who didn’t know what career path he wanted to follow. So, he looked no further than his local community college.
He said his eyes were opened to hundreds of courses that he could afford to study. “That experience opened doors I didn’t even know existed, but that same experience is precisely what thousands of kids are discouraged from pursuing every year,” Mike said.
As college costs continue to rise, and many young people remain at a loss on what to do after graduation, CTE programs can and will serve as a viable path forward. Everyone wants to be successful; we must arm them with the tools and knowledge necessary to achieve this success.
U.S. Rep. Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson (R-PA) and U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) are members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.