For American students, the educational experience is always changing: slide rules turned into graphing calculators, Trapper Keepers were replaced with tablets and class registration lines moved online. And as high schools and colleges continue to reshape themselves for the next century, their vocational and technical programs have undergone equally massive changes -- becoming more important to more students than ever before.
One of the most notable changes is in the name: rather than "vocational," "vo-tech" or "trade" education, technical programs are now increasingly classified under the umbrella of "career and technical education" (CTE). This new standard terminology reflects the real importance of trade programs: they combine with academics to teach students a usable, technical skill and prepare them for a sustainable career.
Those careers aren’t just in traditional vocational-technical fields like manufacturing, construction and agriculture, either; CTE also takes a technical approach to areas ranging from STEM to health sciences to hospitality. (Check out the Fast Facts from the Association for Career and Technical Education for more.)
The Impact of CTE
By focusing on a combination of academics, hands-on training and career preparation, CTE offers a unique path from school to job. It also focuses on fields with some distinct advantages, especially for under-served secondary and postsecondary students.
"College education is obviously valuable in its own right and, usually, as a path toward better career options. But not everyone will start or stay in college," writes The Atlantic’s James Fallows. "The importance of skilled technical jobs, from machinists to construction engineers, is they're generally interesting in themselves, they're less likely to be outsourced or 'de-skilled' than even some white-collar work, and they are better paid than retail or low-end service work."
In addition to high wages and stability, CTE fields are also among the fastest-growing career areas. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported late last year, "Four major occupational groups are projected to grow more than 20 percent -- nearly double the overall growth -- from 2012 to 2022: health-care support occupations, healthcare practitioners and technical occupations, construction and extraction occupations and personal care and service occupations." As important as a traditional college degree can be, these statistics make it clear that a CTE-based bachelor’s or associate’s degree, certificate or licensure can also provide a ticket to a better future for students.
Overcoming The Stigma -- And The Cost
Despite their evolution and impact, "blue-collar" educational paths still suffer from unfavorable comparisons to traditional college structures. Among students, parents and even educators, the idea persists that CTE programs are less valuable or prestigious than liberal arts degrees, and this can mean even the best technical students are dissuaded from pursuing these fields. Worse, it also means that scholarship funds for technical programs can be hard for students to find, even though they are more likely than four-year college students to need financial assistance.
As for the first of those issues, education journalist Mark Phillips uses this intriguing post to outline the stigma, and to discover an increasing number of vocational, technical and internship programs that are working to fight it. Investments in these programs help teach young people (and their parents) that it’s not "just" a technical degree they’re pursuing.
And as for the second, national scholarship providers are starting to realize the importance of financial aid for CTE -- including Mike Rowe, host of CNN’s upcoming Someone’s Gotta Do It. Rowe, who first became famous profiling blue-collar workers on his show Dirty Jobs, founded the mikeroweWORKS Foundation in 2008 as a way to "encourage more people to pursue job opportunities that actually exist – specifically, opportunities that require the mastery of a skill that’s in demand."
The establishment of the foundation led to the creation of the mikeroweWORKS Work Ethic Scholarship, which we at Scholarship America are proud to manage. Last month, thanks to a last-minute push for funds, a remarkable 46 students earned scholarships to trade programs for 2014, joining 130 past recipients who are pursuing their certificates, licenses and degrees with help from the foundation.
Rowe’s foundation isn’t the only one helping CTE students either. Individual tech schools, national organizations and trade unions are focusing more and more on scholarships as well. And as high schools and colleges continue refining their focus on career and technical education, your support of trade and tech scholarships will become an even more important way to help students follow their dreams.