Michael Kenig
Michael Kenig

We need to update our approach toward career and technical education (CTE).

Nationally, 70 out of 100 young adults will not get a four-year college degree. Fortunately, 70% of careers do not require a four-year degree.

Yet, much of our energy and investments center on the 30% of students who graduate with a four-year degree. Many of our industry’s future skilled workers will come from the 70%, and we should be doing more to support them. It is time for the construction industry to work together and speak with one voice to substantially increase support for CTE.

Unfortunately, education policy is heavily weighted in favor of students earning four-year college degrees and undervalues career and technical education. Many students, especially non-traditional students, want a short-term program that will arm them with competitive skills and the ability to earn family-supporting wages.

Many grants may not be available to a student who is working part-time and wants to take a short-term course to earn a diploma in carpentry—even though there’s a full-time, family-supporting job waiting at the end of the program. Likewise, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act exists to support CTE programs by paying for equipment, curricula and instructors. But we underrate CTE programs so much that our Perkins investments amount to less than $100 per CTE student.

If we value career and technical education, we need to support it at all levels. At the federal level, we should increase Perkins funding and expand eligibility for Pell grants to include short-term, industry-validated postsecondary certificates.

At the local level, we should ensure that the funding available for career and technical education is adequate to hire and train teachers and equip their labs to instruct our future skilled workers.

Construction employers must engage to ensure that students understand the available opportunities and the pathways to get to those opportunities. This process begins by taking ownership of our own talent pipelines and partnering with high schools and technical and community colleges.

We must support instructors in construction-related programs and treat them like our industry partners. Truly, as in baseball, they are our farm system. Employers should take the time to understand what construction curricula schools are using; then, they can help to ensure that the coursework allows for a seamless transition from high school to technical college. Programs should offer a nationally recognized and portable credential. Finally, employers should provide work-based learning opportunities for students.

Right now, the average age of young adults entering technical-college programs is 26, and the age of those entering the trades is 28—about 10 years after they graduate from high school. To lower this age, we must work together to eliminate this “lost decade” by making clear to students earlier in their education the various pathways to success in the industry.

Further, we must be doing more to make it easier for students interested in construction to get on a career track earlier in their lives. In Georgia, we have passed legislation that enhances students’ ability to “dual enroll” in high school and college, including technical colleges. That plan allows a student to use post-secondary classes to earn high school credit.

These progressive steps are helping to expand career pathway initiatives, allowing high school students who might not pursue a four-year degree the opporunity to combine work and education while obtaining in-demand credentials.

Perhaps most fundamentally, we need to change our attitude about CTE and work to remove the stigma associated with an education that’s not part of a four-year college degree. CTE programs are rigorous, demanding and relevant to regional employers and the labor market as a whole. They prepare youth and adults for a wide range of high-wage, high-skill and high-demand careers.