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Career frontiers: Voc-tech moves into the future

Career technology programs have evolved far beyond traditional vocational education classes of the last century
  • A senior in the biotechnology program at Miami Valley Career Technology Center is is pursuing a college education in chemical engineering.
  • Miami Valley Career Technology Center in Ohio offers an aviation maintenance program as well as precision machining and HVAC.
  • The New Castle County Vocational Technical School District offers a Building Automation Systems program. Above, students at Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington, Del., work in a lab. The unique program has 40 business partners that help connect students with job shadows and equipment.
  • A culinary arts junior learns knife skills with an instructor at Miami Valley Career Technology Center.

Students in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Public School System learn to make drones in a career technology class developed with a local engineering company.

At Mississippi’s Ocean Springs High School, students in the robotics and engineering program design about 40 robots.

With support from Chevron Energy Systems, Tempe Union High School District in Arizona has created living labs in solar thermal, fuel cell and other types of power to prepare students for careers in energy management.

Career technology programs have evolved far beyond traditional vocational education classes of the last century, in woodworking, cosmetology and automotive mechanics.

“Career and technical education programs are growing quickly in response to filling the skills gap,” says Sean Lynch, spokesperson for the Association of Career and Technical Education, a national organization to prepare students. “Decisions about the types of programs to offer are made on the local level, but advanced manufacturing and other STEM fields are hot across the board in a response to the national need for workers in STEM careers.”

For instance, at Meridian Technology Center, a career education institute in Stillwater, Okla., the mix of programs continues to change based on the needs of local employers, Superintendent Douglas Major says. Stand-alone IT programs have been replaced by courses that focus on how specific industries use technology, such as cyber security and health-care information systems.

“Schools that are not reaching out and having meaningful discussions with employers about their needs are likely not preparing students with the skills needed to be as successful as possible in the workplace,” Major says.Making choices

Funding Cutting-Edge Programs

Launching and maintaining high-tech career education programs can require big bucks. While business technology career programs require only desks, computers and software, other programs—such as automotive technology and robotics—can require labs with thousands of dollars worth of diagnostic and training equipment.

Here’s how different schools across the country fund their career tech programs:

Federal funding. Kathy Demarest, supervisor of public information for Delaware’s New Castle County Vocational Technical School District, says that like all career technical education programs, the New Castle district receives federal Carl Perkins funding, “but it doesn’t come close to funding our program.”

State funding. Like many states, Delaware offers higher per-student funding for career tech schools than it provides for comprehensive high schools. NCCV uses those funds to cover its equipment and programs, and when a potential program is too expensive, the school passes on it and leaves it to a local community college that can charge tuition, Demarest says.

State professional development funding. POLYTECH uses state construction allocations to build a new classroom wing for its computer engineering, electronics and broadcasting programs, according to Superintendent Deborah Zych.

Bond issues. Some districts rely on bond issues to fund their growing career tech programs. The North Clackamas School District has the largest CTE center in Oregon, with 3,400 students. The district’s last bond “put $11 million into facility improvements,” says Karen Phillips, principal of the district’s Sabin Schellenberg Professional Technical Center.

Decisions about launching new career tech programs depend on hiring outlook, the skills needed by local employers and, of course, funding, says Kathy Demarest, supervisor of public information for Delaware’s New Castle County Vocational Technical School District.

The district has a career and technical oversight committee that includes representatives from the state’s Department of Labor, Chamber of Commerce, and economic development offices, as well as school and industry representatives. To determine whether a new career program is viable, committee members pore over labor market predictions and postsecondary opportunities, and look into whether students can earn industry credentials or be hired right out of high school.

In some cases, a new field warrants a new program; other times, it can become part of an existing curriculum. Last year, New Castle school leaders reviewed potential programs in building automation systems and surgical technology.

Building automation—the networking of electronic devices that control climate, security and lighting—became a stand-alone course because it didn’t fit with existing HVAC or electrical programs, Demarest says. But the district decided to make surgical technology a strand of its allied health field for students studying to become hospital and medical technicians.

And last year in Woodside, Del., local government officials alerted leaders at POLYTECH High School that the region needed more emergency medical technicians. In response, this year POLYTECH offered an EMT training course. Fifteen of its graduates are already preparing for the national EMT certification, says POLYTECH Superintendent Deborah Zych, adding that she continues to look for similar opportunities to prepare students to fill needed jobs.

Recently, POLYTECH also implemented dual-enrollment business courses in conjunction with local colleges, including Delaware Tech and Delaware State University. Students can earn advanced credits in high school that can be applied to two- or four-year degrees in accounting, business administration, computer programming, management information systems, office systems and management, and systems design and analysis.

The Building Automation Systems program at Howard High School is unique in Delaware, with 40 business partners who can help students with job shadows and co-op opportunities.

Updating academics

As career tech programs become more advanced, the academics are becoming more rigorous. For instance, to develop robots or computerized building systems, students must have more advanced math and science knowledge than was needed for traditional woodworking or data entry.

At the same time, career tech students must meet the same state and federal testing standards used to measure their counterparts in comprehensive high schools. For example, POLYTECH is also building student writing skills; technical teachers are trained to create writing assignments that relate to students’ career disciplines and are aligned with Common Core.

All career programs integrate math, reading and writing at Sabin Schellenberg Professional Technical Center in Oregon’s North Clackamas School District. For example, computer-aided drafting students researched and wrote a coffee-table book about skyscraper architecture in Chicago. And students use Common Core math to determine how to draw blueprint layouts and calculate gear ratios in auto mechanics, says Principal Karen Phillips.

To determine which students need extra help with basic academics, such as reading and math, Meridian Technology Center in Oklahoma uses ACT’s National Career Readiness Certificate program. The certificate is a portable credential that indicates a student’s level of workplace employability skills in applied math.

Meridian students who need extra help in these areas can work on skills as part of their career tech education, Major says. That may include one-on-one time with teachers or tutors, or special classes geared toward building specific skills.

Building partnerships

Years ago, the expected outcome for career tech students was immediate employment, Major says. But that mindset no longer works. As the workplace has become more sophisticated, additional postsecondary education has become essential for careers in many fields.

Students who enroll in Meridian Technology Center’s pre-engineering program, for example, seek to later enroll in the right engineering-related degree program at a college or university. To help students achieve such goals, career tech schools are partnering with postsecondary institutions such as Northern Oklahoma College and OSU Institute of Technology.

For instance, Miami Valley Career Technology Center in Clayton, Ohio, has articulation agreements with more than 10 two- and four-year colleges and universities. The institutions, including Clark State Community College, Sinclair Community College and Wilmington College, allow career tech students to earn advanced credits while in high school or ensure college acceptance for graduates of certain programs.

Representatives from the higher education institutions sit on advisory committees for the center’s career tech programs to ensure that the curricula match workplace needs.

Earn certifications

To further bolster students’ employability upon graduation, many CTE schools offer opportunities for students to earn industry certifications and designations while in high school. At Miami Valley, 19 programs offer students a chance to earn a credential or industry certificate.

For instance, criminal justice students can become certified in dispatch, armament systems and procedures and first aid, while health careers students can become certified as state-tested nurse’s aides.

At Miami Valley, strong relationships with local industry offer apprenticeships and internships to provide “a seamless career path for high school students,” Superintendent Nick Weldy says. Work experiences, combined with relevant instruction and industry certifications, help develop career-ready students.

“Well-planned and supervised school-based and work-based learning experiences are the foundation for the program,” Weldy says. “The apprenticeship program allows students to work and earn a paycheck while learning the skills and earning the certifications that employer wants.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a contributing writer.