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Partnering to Address the Skills Gap

Oct. 26, 2011
Career and technical education, with its close alignment to business and industry, is best positioned to ensure students possess and understand the connection between technical, employability, and academic skills.

We are at a crossroads in today’s economy. Baby boomers will be retiring in large numbers over the next 10 years and businesses, including manufacturing industries, are looking for a steady and reliable supply of qualified workers. The Obama Administration and Congress have stated their intentions to find solutions to help manufacturers locate qualified workers to eliminate the “skills gap” and to lower the unemployment rate.

The “skills gap” is one of the biggest challenges facing our nation. It is the disconnect between available jobs and the education that students receive. Many students graduate with degrees in fields that are saturated with applicants, or they lack the full set of skills needed in today’s work environment. The career and technical education (CTE) community often hears from business and industry that students – even those with the best academic pedigrees – are not prepared for employment when they enter the workforce.

The importance of career-ready students
A developing national discussion about “college and career readiness,” which includes the President and many members of Congress, relates directly to the topic of the skills gap and U.S. economic competitiveness. For many, unfortunately, that discussion focuses on academic preparedness alone. It does not identify the full set of skills required for students to be career-ready. Future workers – both students and adults – need the technical, employability, and academic skills necessary for career success. Career and technical education, with its close alignment to business and industry, is best positioned to ensure students possess and understand the connection between all three skill sets. In many CTE programs at the secondary and postsecondary level, partnerships exist between businesses and industry that strengthen students’ career development and careerready opportunities.

Although CTE plays a critical role in training the future workforce and is undoubtedly directly connected to the economic health of our nation, we face a second significant challenge: many individuals are misinformed or uninformed about the value of today’s CTE as it relates to career-ready issues. In the case of federal policy makers, this disconnect has translated into a reduction of funding. Federal funding for the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act has not seen Janet B. Bray • Association for Career and Technical Education a substantial increase since 2002, and in the FY 2011 federal budget Congress eliminated $140 million from the program. The reduction of federal funds is perplexing at a time when enrollment in CTE has increased from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 14.4 million in 2007-2008. Community colleges across the country are recording doubledigit enrollment increases because of the economic downturn and training and retraining of adults. With these increases, schools have longer waiting lists for programs in high-demand areas like health care, and they are trying to find more classroom space to accommodate the increase. The recent cut will impede their ability to train and educate future employees at a time when the nation needs it most.

Adding to the capacity issue is the challenge by President Obama to increase the number of postsecondary graduates by five million by 2020, and to expand the number of initiatives that provide skills training to help Americans become career-ready. Community and technical colleges are creating online certification programs and specific training partnerships with businesses and industry to help reach the goal; however additional investment in CTE is needed in order to help a new generation of students become productive employees.

The voice of business
One of the most effective ways to change the perception among policy makers is for businesses and industry to communicate the rigor and relevance of today’s CTE. The influence of business is powerful with Congress, governors, and state legislators. Your voice can inform policy makers about the value of CTE, and the return on investment it provides to employers and to the community. By providing information about the technical, employability, and academic skills required for high-wage, high-demand jobs, you can underscore what is needed to help students be career ready.

Meet with your member of Congress and highlight your partnerships with CTE programs and your role on advisory councils. Explain the vital role that CTE plays in the American economy. Offer your opinion on this issue media outlets.

Businesses’ voices are essential to keeping America’s economy thriving, including your voice. We need to change people’s minds about education and training, so that the public understands that we do not face a choice between academic programs and CTE, or between four-year college programs and the workplace. Our challenge is to prepare individuals to fill the skills gap.

CTE-business partnerships
Participation with local CTE programs is just as critical as the message for policy makers. Companies can assist by engaging local high school and postsecondary CTE programs. Many CTE programs have advisory councils consisting of local and statewide businesses that provide guidance about the latest skills and technology students need to learn in order to be competitive in the marketplace. Business and industry can participate during CTE Month events in February, donate equipment, speak about their profession, and provide tours, job shadowing, and internship opportunities for students.

Another good opportunity for CTE-business partnership is to work with Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSO). There are 11 CTSOs. Each of these student leadership development organizations is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and focuses on different industries and career fields, ranging from business and marketing to health care and technology. (Learn about CTSOs at offices/list/ovae/pi/cte/vso.html) Research has shown that students who are involved with CTSOs demonstrate higher levels of academic engagement and motivation, civic engagement, career self-efficacy, and employability skills than other students.

Several CTSOs host annual national competitions allowing students to showcase their academic, technical, and employability skills. Companies and organizations can support these types of events by serving as judges and providing advice to the students. Also, they can volunteer at state competitions and provide funding for local students to use for college scholarships, field trips, state and national competitions and other CTSO events.

It’s critical that businesses and CTE work together to motivate students and adults to achieve career success, and to advocate for policies that help the U.S. address the skills gap, prepare career-ready employees, and develop a pipeline of workers for the future economy. We look forward to a continued partnership to make it happen.

Janet Bray is the executive director of the Assn. for Career and Technical Education, the largest not-for-profit education association dedicated to the advancement of education that prepares youth and adults for successful careers. ACTE has 27,000 members including teachers, counselors and administrators at the middle school, high school, and postsecondary education levels. Contact ACTE at tel. 703- 683- 9311.