Retiring baby boomers, a technology skills gap, and less career-prepared students are cause for concern in today’s rapidly changing workplace and emerging gig economy. As employers are scrambling to find candidates with the skills they need to fill jobs that didn’t even exist five years ago, it is clear that career technical education (CTE) has not kept pace with today’s workforce demands.
Originally developed to prepare high school students who were unlikely to go on to college for a trade like construction or welding, federal funding for vocational programs—or CTE—in high school passed in 1917, even before public education was required in every state. But more than 100 years later, a growing number of top employers—from Google and Apple, to IBM and Ernst & Young—are desperately trying to fill open positions. We’re facing an estimated 55 million job openings by 2020 without the workforce to fill them.
There is clearly a disconnect between what schools are offering and what employers need, and the skills gap continues to grow as a result. To fix this we need to deliver more career pathways to more students, at an earlier age. We can do this by leveraging innovative technology across a national infrastructure.
All students—whether they plan to continue their education after high school graduation or not—should begin exploring pathways and developing the skills needed for in-demand careers during middle and high school. Beyond preparing students for careers with good wages and job security, this also motivates them to perform better academically. A recent Brookings study concluded that students enrolled in career readiness programs attended school more frequently and were more engaged. On average, 93 percent of students taking career readiness courses graduate high school, compared to the national average of 84 percent, a powerful indicator of the potential impact of career readiness on student retention and graduation.
Along with the expansion of career education to more students, we need to reconsider how to deliver it most efficiently and effectively. It is not economically viable, or necessary, to build large brick-and-mortar vocational training centers focused on specific career pathways in each school district. Instead, we can develop a national infrastructure that ensures every high school student has access to career training through online learning and local or regional training opportunities.
Online career training programs can allow high school students the opportunity to attend an online high school or to supplement their brick and mortar high school education with specific career training that prepares them for certification exams, allows them to earn credentials, or enables them to pursue dual-enrollment college degrees.
Today students can now learn technical skills online, from anywhere, thanks to new technologies including virtual reality and artificial intelligence. For example, we can provide students with exposure to industry experts through live mentoring sessions, use virtual reality to offer 3-D anatomy and physiology tools to aid in healthcare education, and deploy learning tools to allow to enable students to practice coding and software development.
And, through partnerships with employers, unions, career training centers and higher education institutions, students can have access to apprenticeships, externships and summer or part-time employment to help them gain the skills and relationships they will need to excel in a career.
K12 has started a similar model through its 13 Destinations Career Academies and Programs. Combined, these schools currently offer more than 180 career-oriented courses focused on pathways, including business administration, information technology, healthcare, advanced manufacturing, and agriculture. Through national partnerships with unions and companies, students get hands-on experience about everything from learning how to operate a CAD machine to understanding the ins-and-outs of an electric circuit. Whether a student decides to earn college credits or prepare for certification exams, they’ll have industry-relevant, career-focused courses under their belts.
This model can and should be replicated on a national scale. Once an online career program is developed in advanced manufacturing, for example, students nationwide can access it. The in-person training can be made available through local, regional or national partnerships with higher education institutions, school districts, and industry partners.
As the workforce continues to evolve, it’s up to educators to prepare students for it. By deploying education technology across a national infrastructure, more students will have a head start to succeed in a rewarding career. And, more employers will find employees with the skills they need. For the sake of students and the national economy, it’s time for career education to catch up with the demands of today’s workforce.