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Career tech shifts into higher gear

Students learn business etiquette and more complex technology
Students at Haas Automation Inc. in California take part in a lesson. Haas supports SkillsUSA and manufacturing education, and is considered a best practice by the Manufacturing Institute.
Students at Haas Automation Inc. in California take part in a lesson. Haas supports SkillsUSA and manufacturing education, and is considered a best practice by the Manufacturing Institute.

When career tech students in 21 West Virginia districts returned to school this fall, they didn’t head to classrooms. They went to work.

Through the state’s Simulated Workplace pilot program, high school students learn in classes that are restructured to feel like workplace environments. For instance, students will clock in upon arrival, take random drug tests, and be evaluated based on their “company’s” bottom line.

Learning in an environment that simulates a real workplace is intended to help students develop “soft skills,” such as the critical thinking, problem solving and adaptability required to be a successful employee.

“Our contacts in business and industry say that students may come out of high school with great skill sets but they don’t understand business processes,” says Kathi D’Antoni, West Virginia’s associate superintendent for the division of technical, adult, and institutional education. “They don’t understand the importance of showing up on time and staying drug free, and that if you take off a couple of days to go deer hunting, that will affect the company’s bottom line.”

Like West Virginia, more states and districts are making changes to their career tech programs to better prepare graduates for today’s jobs. “Schools must redefine their missions,” says Kevin Baird, chairman of the Center for College and Career Readiness in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. “Schools must come to understand that their goal is not simply to graduate a student, but to develop within that student the passion, skills, and resources to find their vocation, to operate successfully after high school, and to meet the demands of a workplace that changes every day.”

CTE programs have always been measured by their ability to meet the workforce needs of industry, and as workplaces become more technologically advanced, “the shelf life of traditional programs” has been “drastically reduced,” says Douglas Major, superintendent and CEO at Meridian Technology Center, a career training center in Stillwater, Okla. And those career tech programs that continue to teach outdated processes are “obsolete in the eyes of business and industry,” Major says.

The lack of “soft skills” among high school career tech graduates is an oft-cited reason that millions of jobs go unfilled in the United States, despite a national unemployment rate of more than 7 percent. In addition to understanding how businesses work, desirable employees must have soft skills to succeed in “the ever-increasing sophistication of virtually all careers,” Major says.

According to the Manpower Group’s 2013 Talent Shortage Survey, 39 percent of employers in North and South America cited candidates’ lack of soft and technical skills, and a shortage of applicants as the reasons positions were unfilled.

The Manufacturing Institute reports that 600,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs went unfilled in 2012 because of a lack of prospects with the necessary skills to fill the positions, leaving 83 percent of employers with moderate to severe shortages of skilled workers. To reverse this trend, CTE programs are reconstructing their curricula in three valuable and distinct ways: By becoming project-based, real world-driven, and academically rigorous.

Learning through projects

Traditionally, career tech courses were process driven, Major says. But that approach is giving way to a project-based approach that requires students to research, problem-solve, and work in teams to complete assignments. “The old job-sheet method of completing steps one through 10 to learn concept ‘x’ is no longer appropriate,” he says. “Today’s successful CTE programs use inquiry-based learning that requires students to apply knowledge to a wide array of situations, which is what most careers will require.”

West Virginia’s Simulated Workplaces program is an example of project-based learning. Students choose various projects to complete with their teams, and each project is worth a certain value to their “company’s” bottom line, West Virginia’s D’Antoni says.

For instance, students studying agriculture could research the causes and effects of celiac disease and write a technical report discussing the foods that contribute to the disease and foods that can be part of a gluten-free diet. That study would be shared with bakers and supermarket managers who want to provide products for customers with celiac disease.

Students in engineering and manufacturing could create a production plan to manufacture 1 million computers for a customer who needs them within four months. The plan would involve compiling a budget and determining the number of workers and shifts needed to complete the project.

By working on projects such as these, students will master their content area skill sets, and also be able to handle customer service activities and other business processes that would be required in a real-world workplace.

Such project-based learning helps students “discover the relevance of their core academic subjects,” Major says. “For many CTE students, the ability to apply mathematical theory to a project they are working on in their technical curriculum is the proverbial switch that brings light to the concept. Once they discover the use of the theory, it just makes sense and gives them the confidence they need to move forward in both their technical and their academic subjects.”

Establishing real-world connections

Curriculum “should reflect the real world, and instruction should lead to real-world application,” says Baird, of the Center for College and Career Readiness.

Students can better connect learning to the workplace when local employers are invited to help schools develop their curricula. “Textbooks and purchased curriculum are giving way to curriculum jointly authored by community organizations, businesses, and others who present an authentic experience for students,” Baird says.

For instance, a partnership between Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Career & Technical Institute (LCTI) and 14 local employers gives high school seniors jobs using the technical skills they’ve learned at the school. Jobs are available in careers such as precision machining, welding, cosmetology, and nursing, says AJ Jorgenson, spokesperson for the Manufacturing Institute, a think tank affiliated with the National Association of Manufacturers.

In Carrollton, Ga., and Florence, Ala., local school districts partnered with Southwire Company—a wire and cable manufacturer with plants in both cities—to offer part-time jobs to students at risk of dropping out of school. Students accepted into the program attend high school for half a day, then work one of three shifts at the student plant, which is located next door to the company’s main facility.

The students make real Southwire products that are sold by national home improvement retailers. The districts provide transportation, teachers, and other services, while Southwire pays wages and provides manufacturing equipment and space for life skills classes required by school systems, says Gary Leftwich, manager of media and community relations at Southwire. Students are paid $8 per hour and get class credit for working. In addition, students are eligible for a 50-cent per hour bonus for perfect attendance and another 50-cent per hour bonus for meeting production goals.

Since launching in 2007, more than 400 students have participated. “The main purpose is to increase students’ skills and keep them on track to graduate,” says Corey Behel, Southwire program coordinator for Florence City Schools.

“But when they graduate, they now have work experience, which is so valuable in helping them get another job.”

In Hawaii, The Learning Coalition is funding a program in which businesses, nonprofits, museums, and service agencies are creating curriculum with school administrators and teachers. Through such partnerships, entire communities take ownership of the curriculum being taught in their schools, as representatives from numerous companies, organizations, and agencies are involved in planning and creating the material that will be taught.

Together, they try to ensure that students will be prepared with the skills demanded by the workplace. “The connection between school and real-world enterprise is part of one common, co-owned ecosystem of continuous learning with a student-centered goal focused on real-world application and understanding,” Baird says.

Achieving academic excellence

As technology has accelerated the pace of change across all industries, even careers that were once considered manual labor have become highly technical. As a result, students entering almost any career must be well prepared academically, especially in STEM subjects. “We must accept that there is no significant difference between ‘college readiness’ and ‘career readiness,’” Baird says. “And we must therefore increase high school course work to a level of expectation that approaches college-level requirements.”

For instance, farming requires higher-level academic skills than do many other jobs, according to Metametrics, an education research organization. Farmers are CEOs of their business, must understand complex legal and financial documents, as well as genetically modified crops, must be skilled at applying chemistry for crop selection, rotation, and fertilization and must be skilled at operating more high tech machinery and technology, Baird says.

For example, the new John Deere farming equipment uses GPS and advanced probes to track seed placement, and soil moisture and nutrient requirements, he adds.

While some policymakers distinguish between “knowledge workers” and “manufacturing labor,” today’s manufacturing employees must be able to operate complex robotics and other high-tech tools, Baird adds.

To ensure that CTE students are prepared academically for demanding careers, some schools are incorporating higher-level coursework and even partnering with local colleges. At Pennsylvania’s LCTI, for instance, students can earn more than 30 college credits during high school through worksite learning, which is essentially what students learn while working at paid jobs or as volunteers. They also have opportunities to earn several national certifications, such as employer-recognized welding, manufacturing, and nurse’s aide certificates.

In North Carolina, some career tech high schools offer college courses through partnerships with community colleges or other institutions. Stokes County Early College, serving grades 9 through 12, offers an accelerated academic program that lets students earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time.

Early College of Forsyth is a high school for grades 9 through 12 located on the campus of Forsyth Technical Community College. High school juniors choose to enroll in one of a number of manufacturing programs, and they graduate after senior year ready for work, with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

Even if college courses aren’t part of the CTE mix, schools are finding ways to ensure that students are academically competitive. In West Virginia, career tech programs are using the WIN Learning System to help students overcome deficiencies in math, language, and other core subjects. The system is composed of online learning modules that students can work through independently, and it “targets each student’s deficiencies so they don’t have to go over material they already know,” D’Antoni says.

And to keep students’ interest, the questions and reading selections included in the modules relate to each individual’s career tech interest.

Ensuring academic competence is vital to preparing students for the careers of today and tomorrow. As career tech programs continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of students and employers, that academic focus, combined with a real-world approach to the world of work, is making a positive difference.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer in Alabama