Getting Technical: Preparing High School Students for the Workforce America Needs


Aug 25, 2016

High school students taking a computer class

Photo by monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on August 24, 2016.

For many high school graduates, pursuing a postsecondary degree may not be feasible or desirable—about 20 percent forgo college and directly enter the workforce. Given that some evidence shows career and technical education (CTE) can boost earning potential for those heading straight to the job market, ensuring access to high-quality CTE programs is critical. With strong expected growth in fields such as computers, engineering, and health care—which have traditionally been served by certification programs—employers and policymakers have a vested interest in ensuring that America's high school students are prepared to meet the country's future employment needs.

Since 2007, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education program has provided more than $1 billion a year in federal funds to state and local departments of education to prepare high school graduates to enter the labor market, through CTE programs. Both Congress, which is currently working to reauthorize the Perkins program, and federal and state policymakers charged with implementing the law, could choose to apply lessons learned from promising and effective CTE programs to create a strong partnership between employers and state and local educational agencies. Some of these lessons include:

  • Ensuring CTE programs work with regional business communities to mitigate and share risk. By targeting sector clusters (for example, energy, information technology, and health), regions can develop programs that promote career pathways to best meet demand for specific skills and high-priority occupations. This requires employers to share information with education institutions and local education agencies about what types of skills and occupations are in most demand.

  • Expanding and supporting work-based learning models within CTE programs. This means embedding apprenticeships, internships, cooperatives and other on-the-job training opportunities within education programming so that students obtain hands-on practical experience in the workforce. In addition to strengthening technical skills, this approach promotes desirable workplace behaviors and competencies; students should understand the importance of showing up on time, listening to direction, and being part of a workplace team.

  • Incorporating employer guidance and advice when designing and administering CTE programs. Employers active in CTE programs have historically faced issues that include a lack of guidance from school districts on hiring and supporting their students, unreliable scheduling of student placements, and work-based learning programs that are not aligned with the long-term goals of the employer.

  • Further supporting federal efforts to promote employment and workforce training by aligning CTE performance requirements with Workforce Innovation Opportunities Act benchmarks. Since states already need to report on these indicators, policymakers could reduce the administrative burden of states working to implement Perkins programs by keeping these measures consistent.

  • Encouraging state departments of labor and education to collaborate and share data such as unemployment insurance quarterly wage records so that workplace progress of CTE program graduates can be tracked.

  • Incentivizing colleges and universities to implement CTE programs that meet local needs.

In the postwar decades of the last century, a skilled tradesman such as a plumber or an electrician could ensure a family's place in the middle class. While today's workforce may require a different mix of skills, investing in high school CTE programs aimed at meeting modern needs of the workplace could help America stay competitive in the new era.

Gabriella C. Gonzalez is a senior sociologist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Robert Bozick is a senior sociologist at RAND and the associate director of RAND Labor and Population.