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Professional Opinion

Career technical education provides alternate path to success

How educators can empower teens to make smart education and career choices
Janice M. Tkaczyk is the national director for counselor and academic relations at Universal Technical Institute. She spent 35 years in public education, including 30 as the guidance director at a regional, technical high school.
Janice M. Tkaczyk is the national director for counselor and academic relations at Universal Technical Institute. She spent 35 years in public education, including 30 as the guidance director at a regional, technical high school.

In today’s education landscape, it’s common for teachers, school counselors and administrators to encourage students to graduate high school and earn a four-year college degree.

For years, we have seen this as the “right” path and perhaps the only path to success. But this one-size-fits-all approach isn’t a viable one. While many graduating seniors are excited to head off to college, many students with great skills and big dreams are struggling to decide on their next step. So, what’s the right path for those students?

As we consider our role in helping students explore their educational paths, we need to also consider our responsibility to expose students to the complete spectrum of learning and career opportunities available in today’s global economy. We must educate teachers and students about the benefits of career and technical education across the curriculum and throughout each school year.

Career technical education is critical for training the next generation of skilled STEM workers. Skilled technical jobs in manufacturing, transportation, healthcare and construction are abundant, pay well and are fueling our nation’s recovery. These careers can be an excellent option for the hands-on, mechanically minded student in your class still pondering his or her future after high school.

To fill these jobs, which are increasingly sophisticated and high-tech, students do need post-secondary education—the kind of industry-specific and hands-on education that just isn’t available in traditional two- and four-year degree programs.

It’s time to shed the myth that a four-year degree is the only way to success for our students and to start empowering them to make smart post-graduation choices that will lead to long-term success.

Beyond high school

High-quality CTE programs deliver value to a broad range of students, building in-demand STEM competencies and the skills needed to fill modern technical jobs in high-growth industries. High school students involved in CTE engage in relevant, real-world learning that serves as a pathway to a successful technical career.

Students who choose to enroll in CTE classes, which in many cases aren’t graduation requirements or credit-granting courses, do so because they have a passion for technology and problem-solving. We should champion this passion and embrace students who have many talents, but who aren’t necessarily interested in a four-year degree.

We need to recognize that not all students are the same, and help each chart his or her own unique path to happiness and success.

Educators—beginning to recognize CTE as a viable system to help these students find real-world applications for their skills—are informing students of the wealth of attainable, rewarding technical careers that exist.

For example, students who thrive in high school automotive programs should consider the opportunities available today in this high-tech industry. Transportation service technicians are experts in the complex digital systems that keep modern vehicles running, and spend as much time in front of computers as they do under hoods.

And while many college graduates are competing for a handful of jobs in their fields or moving back home, transportation technicians are in demand. Still, many young people are unaware of the potential for success in this industry.

Empowering students

Teachers and counselors can do their part by helping students sort through their options and finding quality post-secondary programs that fit their passions and meet their needs; sharing our commitment to student success; and building a record of preparing students for long-term and in-demand careers in the skilled trades.

Although February is national CTE month we must continuously celebrate the accomplishments and dreams of these hands-on learners. Empower your students to recognize the value of their gifts and talents. Your encouragement and assistance with planning for the future will allow them to realize their potential and pursue their dreams.

Janice M. Tkaczyk is the national director for counselor and academic relations at Universal Technical Institute. She spent 35 years in public education, including 30 as the guidance director at a regional, technical high school.