What is Career and Technical Education?

James Paterson
James Paterson
M.S. in School Counseling
Instructor showing apprentice students how to operate a machine.

Educators today are encouraging students to search more broadly for careers that interest them, and at the same time employers can’t find the right workers to fill open jobs. That means there is much more attention on all careers, including those from career and technical education (CTE) programs.

Too often, however, for a variety of reasons – from a lack of funding to preconceived ideas about the careers – CTE programs don’t gets enough attention. Richard Lapan, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of the book Strength-based Career Development, says students should more often be considering the some 16 career clusters and 79 pathways that the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) has defined.

“I think early on students rule out wide ranges of good choices for some not very good reasons,” Lapan says. “My guess is that critical decisions like whether or not to pursue careers in tech fields are not very well thought out.”

Jarrod Nagurka, advocacy and public affairs manager for ACTE, says CTE is “particularly important as the world of work constantly changes…The CTE ecosystem is uniquely positioned to skill, upskill, and reskill workers quickly and efficiently, and is able to flex with the changing skills demands of the labor market.”

What is Career and Technical Education? 

CTE was born in educational programs for homemakers, and early in its history it largely involved teaching skills to women to help them manage their family – offering classes on cooking, childcare, or other skills for homemaking.

It began to include what came to be called “trade skills” eventually, along with other educational offerings for students who weren’t likely to go on to college and likely would move into a job after high school. Now, however, it has broadened to include sophisticated career paths in technology, science, business, and other fields, and its students often move to four-year colleges.

Along with providing students with practical skills that make them “job-ready”, CTE programs generally have connections to employers so that the course work is directly related to jobs and the students have opportunities for real world experiences and employment, Nagurka says.

What Careers does CTE Prepare Students For?

ACTE defines these 16 career clusters and within them breaks down 79 career paths. Nancy Trivette, head of agricultural education for New Jersey and former vice president for the ACTE Agricultural Division, notes that those clusters offer a wide variety options within them for career paths.

“In any of these early on there is some fundamental, general information for students about the cluster generally, but they are then offered an opportunity to narrow their focus,” she says.

For instance, she says, within the agriculture, food and natural resources cluster there are five pathways: agribusiness systems, animal systems, environmental service systems, food products and processing systems, natural resources systems and plant systems.

And she adds that agricultural careers can range from work with plants through botany, the study of animal health, how food is processed for the market, and how environmental concerns impact the agricultural system. She also says while some people assume most CTE training is accomplished in high school, many students in the program go on to community college or a four-year degree.

The hospitality and tourism cluster, as another example, includes lodging, recreation, amusements and attractions, restaurants and food/beverage services, and travel and tourism. Within the marketing cluster, there are pathways in marketing communications, marketing management, marketing research, merchandising and sales.

Nagurka says additionally CTE programs help impart employability skills or “soft skills”, that employers demand and that they say are critical to workplace success.

How are Career and Technical Education Programs Taught?

Experts at ACTE and others in the field often refer to “skill-based education” when they describe career and technical education, and according to Nagurka, that often means the students do hands-on work. Students may work on longer-term projects related to careers they want to explore and be asked to intentionally use 21st century skills such as problem solving methods, communications, critical thinking, and resilience.

Often, blended learning with a mix of classroom, online, and hands-on experiences is useful because as students explore the narrow paths within the clusters, they may need to access outside resources online. There are even virtual learning platforms that allow them to mimic experience with hands-on work in the health care industry or trades. They often have real world or virtual experience in training and then classroom work to supplement it.

Some CTE is taught in specific special schools while other introductory work or training not requiring specialized equipment is offered in traditional schools. Today more introductory programs are offered about CTE for all students, often starting in middle school.

The regional Tulsa Technology Center, for instance, offers hands-on, direct experience with CTE material to its students and offers regular visits for students at other schools to explore CTE careers, along with some virtual training. It also supports a manufacturing trailer manned by students and instructors in the program to provide experiential learning at other schools for younger students.

In Tennessee, middle school students go through a sequence of courses related to CTE fields, including sixth-grade courses where they see how technology can be used on real world model manufacturing processes or to develop health care data, and in seventh and eighth grade where they undertake hands-on projects within several CTE careers. They can gain even more specialized training as they move to high school, having had a chance to explore them earlier.

At Wynne (AK) Junior High School, students participate in “job shadow” day, where they visit medical offices, lumber yards, drug stores, banks, farms and the police headquarters and Denver Public Schools require educators to expose middle school students to several specific CTE careers each quarter.

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