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Renewing the Case for Career and Technical Education

Sept. 24, 2020
Manufacturers idled for too long; now is the time to move.

Over the past six months, our society has undertaken lifestyle and work changes that only a world-altering, once-in-a-century event like SARS-CoV-2 could inspire. Entire businesses have gone virtual for the foreseeable future, including schools. Online retail has stepped up its years-long displacement of in-store shopping. Many small restaurants and bars, community treasures around the country, have gone out of business. Hotels and airlines must overhaul their business models to meet the demands of post-COVID travelers.

Manufacturing has also been affected on a massive scale, with significant supply chain disruptions (fostering the further decoupling of the Chinese and U.S. economies) and expediently transformed factory floors. If there’s a silver lining, it is that some analysts predict manufacturers will achieve five years of innovation in just 18 months.

As remarkable as that pace of change sounds, it comes with a cost. Even before this dramatic explosion of technological advancement, American manufacturers were struggling to attract enough employees with appropriate skills to keep their increasingly tech-savvy factories operating. People with STEM training often aren’t interested in manufacturing, and those interested in manufacturing often don’t have the necessary skill sets. The most recent (pre-COVID) study from the Manufacturing Institute forecast that 2.5 million manufacturing jobs would go unfilled in the coming decade due to a lack of trained workers. Even amid a slow recovery from the spring economic collapse, there are 400,000 manufacturing jobs open.

Now, with U.S. manufacturers racing to evolve technologically – 85% of CEOs in a recent MAPI Foundation study see investments in smart factories rising in the next year – the skills gap could grow even wider. 

The skills gap isn’t so much about our lack of science and math majors (in a paper published five years ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics argued we have both a STEM crisis and a STEM surplus on our hands). It’s more about companies foregoing investments in training, as one writer articulated in this publication – and, more fundamentally, it’s about four decades of stigmatizing vocational education, a lost period in which our society pressured all high school students to apply to four-year colleges. One could argue that a 1983 federal commission study “A Nation at Risk” put the final nail in the coffin. Its findings – that the average secondary and college graduate was not as well-educated as the average graduate of prior generations – led to a newfound emphasis on academic rather than vocational courses. As the commission stated, “the public has no patience with undemanding and superfluous high school offerings.”

The not-so-subtle message: vocational education was reserved for people who couldn’t make it in a “real” school.  So, in the mid-1980s as advanced manufacturing was gaining a foothold, instead of channeling thousands of students into a career and technical education (CTE) and then into middle-class manufacturing jobs, our society put up a psychological roadblock.   

As a consequence, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, four-year college enrollment rose from 7.5 million in 1980 to 14 million today, an 87% increase. Meanwhile, two-year colleges – including technical schools – saw their enrollments rise from 4.5 million in 1980 to 5.8 million in 2020, just a 29% increase.

But the times are changing. The economic crises of the past decade have driven more youth to do a cost-benefit analysis on the value of a four-year education – and have helped turn the tide of opinion on CTE. And many industries have recognized this education path as the key to the future skilled workforce. As Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute offered in a 2019 study, “Now [CTE] is widely hailed as a necessary and potentially viable path forward for students who have been poorly served by a college-for-all culture.” A further sign of how leaders now understand the importance of rebranding this path: in reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act in 2018, for the first time in five authorizations, Congress used the term “career and technical education” rather than “vocational education.”

The speed of technological change is forcing manufacturers’ hands. In a 2019 MAPI study, we found well over a third of manufacturers building relationships with local academic institutions (including high schools, community colleges, and universities), another quarter adopting massively open online courses (MOOCs) and other forms of online education, and 20% developing internal training courses to increase new-technology skills.

But this train is leaving the station. Every manufacturer needs to be on board.

Stephen Gold is president and CEO of MAPI, the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation.

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