As the COVID-19 pandemic upends our way of life and damages our economy, it is shining a bright-hot spotlight on a host of acute social issues such as income inequality, the skyrocketing cost of traditional college tuition and the future of work. These aren’t new issues, of course; they’ve existed for years, even decades. But the pandemic is bringing them into greater focus and, in so doing, creating a remarkable opportunity for Career Technical Education (CTE).

Not only should CTE emerge stronger after the pandemic, but if its collective leaders and champions seize the moment, it can also permanently shed its reputation as a second-class citizen in the broader education realm and help shape — and even lead — the future of learning. Here’s why.

Traditional College Continues to Lose Its Luster

Traditional college programs have their place and likely always will. But certain trends shed serious doubt on these programs and even which colleges and universities, beyond the most highly regarded (and well-endowed), will survive in a recognizable form in the next several decades.

From the 1987-1988 school year to the 2017-2018 school year, the cost of public college increased 213% while private college tuition has increased by about 129%. It’s no wonder that student debt is at an all-time high, roughly $1.5 trillion dollars.

The thing is: only about 60% of those who enroll in four-year programs actually graduate within six years and only about 30% of two-year college enrollees graduate within three years.

The end result is a large number of students with significant debt but without the degrees required to secure the better paying jobs. COVID-19 has struck at a time when many people’s finances are, in essence, immunosuppressed. A report from Burning Glass Technologies and the Strada Education Network claims that 43% of recent college graduates are under-employed. The miles-long lines at food banks around the country sum up the heartbreaking situation.


CTE is More Affordable with a Promising ROI

CTE is considerably more affordable than traditional college. The National Center for College & Career Transitions (NC3T) reports that in the current academic year,  the average cost for public community and technical colleges is $3,730. And, when CTE is planned and executed properly — meaning, first and foremost, in conjunction with local business and industry — it can lead to gainful and family-sustaining employment. (More on that in a moment.)

If ever there was a time to convince people that traditional college isn’t the answer for all, it’s now. The NC3T put it this way in their report entitled “Preparing Our Students for the Real World: The Education Shift Our Children and Future Demand”:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“…as observers of the American workforce can tell you, our focus on ‘college for all’ has re­sulted in a severe mismatch with the needs of industry, leading not only to severe shortages of needed workers but a lack of opportunity for those students who we promised to prepare for their futures…The college-prepara­tory curriculum, oriented strongly towards the requirements of four-year colleges, isn’t relevant to every student, nor does it help prepare students for a large number of good jobs that are actually available.”[/perfectpullquote]


The Supply & Demand is Clearly Here

The groups Higher Learning Advocates (HLA) and Advance CTE (ACTE) note in their report that 94% of parents strongly or somewhat approve of expanding access to career and vocational programs. In addition, 86% of parents and students say that they would like to get more real-world skills and know-how during high school. In addition, only 11% of business leaders think our current education system effectively prepares students for success in the workforce.

By tapping into the hunger for more and better workplace preparation from both the supply side (parents and teachers) and the demand side (employers), CTE leaders can help people understand that career training shouldn’t be a second choice. In fact, the CTE choice is not only a respectable one but, for many, the smartest choice, too.


CTE Can Be a Path to Better Wages

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began to wreak havoc, only 40% of American families said that they could manage an unexpected expense of $400. McKinsey & Company has reported that 86% of the jobs made vulnerable by the pandemic paid less than $40,000 a year. Average wages for the working poor and middle class — adjusted for inflation — have been stagnant for decades.

Many employers are having trouble finding the skilled workers that they need — and for whom they are willing to pay well, often higher than those jobs requiring a traditional four-year college degree. ACTE reports that technical and applied science graduates of CTE programs earn between $2,000 and $11,000 more than those with bachelor’s degrees.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“The greatest anti-poverty program devised by human beings: a job.”[/perfectpullquote]

A CTE client of ours, for whom we just helped do some long-range planning, has committed to offering only those courses that prepare students for jobs that provide a living wage. The CTE community would take a giant step forward in the eyes of the American public if they all followed suit. After all, as U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi put it so well, “The greatest anti-poverty program devised by human beings: a job.”

Nimble Learning for a Nimble World

Properly managed and led, CTE programs can outperform even the best of traditional colleges and universities in one key area: speed. As the nature of work changes rapidly — hypersonically during COVID-19 pandemic — CTE programs that are well connected to local business and industry can respond with targeted offerings and the necessary speed.

All indications are that microcredits and credentialing programs will only increase in demand and value in the years to come. Such niche, shorter-term offerings are something CTE has excelled at for years. The moment couldn’t be any riper for the CTE community to exploit this experience the benefit of itself, its students and our shared economy.

As the worlds of education and work both continue to be radically transformed, the leaders and advocates of CTE stand uniquely qualified to lead our society to a better, smarter, more livable place for us all.