ETS Research Takes on a New Frontier: Career and Technical Education

When people can demonstrate their potential, the possibilities are endless.

This potential is what ETS Research is looking to uncover, particularly when it comes to those embedded in the career and technical education (CTE) pipeline.

The field of CTE represents a crucial pathway for many underserved and underemployed learners, whether as part of a high school curriculum, for high school graduates seeking postsecondary training and certification, or adult workers being retrained or entering the workforce for the first time. With the disruption of the world of work through technology, global competition and shifts in livable wage jobs, the notion of “blue collar” work no longer holds.

The CTE space comprises several areas working together across the pipeline, with the biggest players often including career and technical high schools and trade schools, community colleges, employers and workplaces that employ those with technical skills and competencies in jobs often desperately needing to be filled.

ETS Academic-to-Career Research staff pictured from left: Kevin Williams, managing research scientist; Richard Tannenbaum, general manager, Research & Development; Harrison Kell, research scientist; Steve Robbins, principal research scientist; Margarita Olivera-Aguilar, associate research scientist; and Lydia Liu, senior research director.

As a result of the interest in uncovering more about this complex and less-explored field, research scientists in the Academic-to-Career (AtC) research center, a division of ETS Research, have begun to work toward further understanding how students and adults successfully enter and progress in skilled technical work.

“The importance and relevance of CTE to today’s and tomorrow’s economy, and its close connection to ETS’s mission of supporting and providing opportunities for all learners, really inspired our research focus in this area,” noted Richard Tannenbaum, general manager of Research & Development.

Part of these initial efforts have included the scientists’ recent presentations at the Innovations Conference by the League for Innovation in Community College, where they shared their initial research findings related to CTE.

Harrison Kell, research scientist; Margarita Olivera-Aguilar, associate research scientist; Kevin Williams, managing research scientist; and Steve Robbins, principal research scientist, each presented on various areas of focus related to CTE, covering topics including inequality, knowledge, skills and abilities, as well as community college and postsecondary education.

Here is a brief overview of the scientists’ findings:

  • Kell’s research focused on the demographics of CTE jobs across industries, finding that participation by gender closely resembled the general population, with 86 percent of those in education and training fields identifying as white women, while 95 percent employed in architecture and construction were men. Of the 15 categories of fields examined, men were paid, on average, more than women in 14 categories.
  • Olivera-Aguilar’s study tracked individuals who entered community colleges in 2006 through 2012, finding that 36 percent of students did not obtain any degree, 13 percent obtained undergraduate certificates, 24 percent obtained an associate degree, and 25 percent completed a bachelor’s degree.
  • Robbins’ focus was on scores assigned to a range of abilities, skills and work styles of various occupations. These scores were compared across five “zones,” each characterized by degree/other credential expectation and wages/earnings. As defined by the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s occupational classification system, O*Net®, Zone 3 occupations require training in vocational schools, on-the-job experience or an associate degree, and this is where most CTE jobs are located. Zone 1 and 2 occupations placed a higher emphasis on physical and manual skills, and less on communication, problem solving and decision making.
  • Williams’ study examined the community college and postsecondary CTE experiences of students who passed the HiSET® exam. CTE is considered a priority for HiSET exam passers: the most common reason individuals take the HiSET exam is to attend community college, a large supplier of CTE programs. As a result, students felt empowered by developing 21st-century skills including adaptability, time management and problem solving simply by studying for and passing the exam, with about 75 percent of these students still enrolled in postsecondary institutions after two years, reflecting high persistence rates.

These studies represent the AtC’s strategy of employing diverse perspectives to examine individuals’ successes and challenges before, during and after the CTE experience. As the research work in the space continues to expand, the agenda is being carefully designed to maximize the impact on lives and communities. This will allow the researchers to focus on projects in the space that help address educational challenges affecting learners, educators, administrators, employees and policymakers.

The importance and relevance of CTE to today’s and tomorrow’s economy, and its close connection to ETS’s mission of supporting and providing opportunities for all learners, really inspired our research focus in this area.

~ Richard Tannenbaum

One such challenge is the need to increase workplace preparedness and success. To directly address this challenge, researchers are examining several areas related to the CTE field, including but not limited to:

  • Career pathways and factors that support the success of high school career and technical students, as well as adult learners seeking to obtain skilled technical jobs;
  • Synthesizing employer skill expectations across a range of job types; and
  • Case studies investigating how to optimize adults’ knowledge and competency acquisition in digital- and blended-learning conditions, whether to promote literacy or employability skills.

With the group’s work continuing, they also recognize the value and importance of collaboration in producing and providing meaningful research recommendations and evidence to those most directly involved in the space. They intend to continue to build and foster partnerships with a variety of organizations in order to provide answers, new ideas and potential solutions to the most critical questions in the space.