Career and Technical Education (CTE) Poised to Respond to Our COVID-19 Economy

Sara Haviland

Margarita Olivera-Aguilar

Steve Robbins

Lydia Liu

It is difficult to overstate the economic challenge of COVID-19. While today’s economy is an improvement over record April 2019 losses, recovery remains uncertain. December 2020 unemployment rates were nearly double the same time the year before (6.7% versus 3.6%). What’s more, these effects have been unevenly distributed across society, disproportionately impacting historically underserved and young workers, and those with lower levels of education.

With all we’ve seen, Career and Technical Education (CTE) is one potential way to provide accessible and meaningful employment solutions, helping move unemployed workers into stable jobs. Previously associated with secondary programs, today’s CTE is also provided via community colleges and can be a strong postsecondary pathway for adult learners. These technical programs are ideal skilling and reskilling training platforms as they are relatively short, affordable, have low barriers to entry, and often lead to good, in-demand jobs. Based on the education priorities of the Biden administration, it seems reasonable to assume that we can expect an emphasis in CTE through investment in community colleges and workforce training to get people back to work.

However, critical knowledge gaps could cause us to underutilize limited stimulus resources; the government could invest in retraining without an equal response and interest from learners, and employers could experience persistent skill gaps. We recognize the importance of CTE as a path to skilled technical work (also known as middle-skill jobs) and have plans to contribute to the continued conversation covering issues of access and equity.

Perceptions of CTE during the COVID-19 pandemic

As the government plans for the economic recovery through investment in technical programs it becomes relevant to understand students’ interest and willingness to pursue technical careers. In Summer 2020, we began work investigating the factors that people consider when making career decisions, specifically related to CTE. We surveyed young adults (ages 18–30) in five different regions (New York City, Detroit, Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles) to obtain more insight about their attitudes toward CTE and their understanding of their local labor markets.

Preliminary results from New York City show that generally, participants have positive attitudes towards CTE, and believe that students in CTE in high school are just as prepared for college as their peers. We also found interesting trends showing gender gaps in the interest to pursue careers in STEM. More female than male participants indicated that information technology jobs have been critical during the pandemic (76% females vs. 65% males), and that jobs in this field represent stable employment (85% females vs. 75% males). However, females did not show a strong preference for pursuing careers in information technology; only 38% of females indicate they are likely or very likely to pursue a job in this field versus 62% of males, and 37% indicate they are likely or very likely to pursue education in this field, versus 64% of males.

Connecting Adult Learners to Employers

As important as it is to know about perceptions of CTE, it is equally as critical to understand how postsecondary CTE programs are conducted and aligned to employers. Often, postsecondary vocational education occurs in noncredit community college programs which are largely unregulated, allowing them to respond quickly to employer needs. However, they can also vary in structure and quality. Developing high-quality certificate and associate’s programs is vital for equity, as they serve minority, low income and adult students disproportionately. We are working to develop better information on the skills and credentials these programs offer, and how those align to employer needs and values. This will help us to determine best practices for programs to engage employers and prepare students to meet labor market needs.

Our ongoing study which is focused on bridging CTE careers with employers, outlines these connections between noncredit programs and employers. We examine course catalogs from a sample of schools to understand program structures. This analysis is complemented by case studies to gain further insight through interviews with school representatives and local employers to understand how they interact. We have recently completed phase one of our analysis in the New York City region, we continue to learn about school leaders’ data sources for labor market information, how they work to make their programs as student- and employer-friendly as possible, and how they build pathways from noncredit to credit programming to allow learners to stack industry-recognized credentials toward degrees.

A Holistic Approach

In examining both individuals and institutions, our team continues to pursue a holistic approach to understanding CTE as an important pathway to economic recovery. As we continue to investigate both young adult attitudes toward job seeking and career and technical education within and across regions as well as the programs and employer connections available in these regions, we expect that our findings and future research will aid community colleges in their efforts to provide quality and meaningful career training pathways leading to jobs that provide meaningful work, a livable wage and opportunities for career advancement.

Sara Haviland is a research scientist at ETS. Margarita Olivera-Aguilar is an associate research scientist at ETS. Steve Robbins is a principal research scientist at ETS. Lydia Liu is a principal research director at ETS.