In Arkansas, Career and Technical Education Paying Off

Screengrab from a video promoting Arkansas' "Be a Pro Proud" initiative.

Arkansas’ “Be a Pro Proud” initiative aims to encourage students to enter technical professions including carpentry, welding and others.

By Lauren CameraApril 7, 2016, at 3:37 p.m.+ More

Career and technical education programs – which policymakers and business groups have been touting as solutions to help fill the skills gap, but which students and parents have been slow to embrace – are paying off in a big way in Arkansas, a new report shows.

Those in the Natural State with greater exposure to career and technical education classes are more likely to graduate, enroll in a two-year college, be employed and have higher wages, according to the report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank in the nation’s capital.

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The report also found that those students are just as likely to pursue a four-year degree as their peers, and students who “concentrate” in career and technical education coursework – meaning students who take a sequence of at least three CTE courses aligned to a specific industry – are more likely to graduate high school by 21 percentage points compared with their counterparts who do not take such a focused approach.

The study additionally suggests workforce programs benefit the kids who may be in the most need of a boost: boys and students from low-income families.

“The goal of today’s CTE is simple: to connect students with growing industries in the American economy and to give them the skills and training required for long-term success,” said Shaun Dougherty, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education and author of the report.

Dougherty coordinated with the Arkansas Research Center to access and analyze their database of secondary, postsecondary and labor market information – one of the few in the country that compiles such data on vocational programs. He tracked 100,000 students through high school and then into college and/or the workforce.

Along with finding that students who take a concentrated approach to career and technical education are much more likely to graduate from high school than those who do not – even if they take a similar number of CTE courses – Dougherty’s report showed that such students also are more likely by nearly 1 percentage point to be employed in the year after high school and are 1.3 percentage points more likely to be enrolled in a two-year college.

In addition, the average quarterly wages of those who concentrate in career and technical education are $45 higher.

Yet despite the positive impact such programs can have, the negative stereotypes associated with “vo-tech” programs that at one time sent students – largely those from low-income households and minorities – into low-paying or menial jobs still hamper the field.

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As a result, Dougherty said, the majority of students across the country are put on a conveyor belt through bureaucratized schools that don’t adequately prepare them for anything, be it college or career.

That’s not the case in most industrialized countries, where students outperform those in the U.S. on measures of academic achievement. Many also begin preparing for a career while still in high school.

“American students face a double whammy: Not only do they lack access to high-quality secondary CTE, but then they are subject to a ‘bachelor’s degree or bust’ mentality,” Dougherty wrote. “And many do bust, dropping out of college with no degree, no work skills, no work experience and a fair amount of debt.”

Case in point: Less than one-half of 1 percent of the nation’s workforce was engaged in anapprenticeship program in 2015, according to the Department of Labor.

Plenty of today’s vocational programs, however, are not the shop classes of yesteryear.

Instead, they focus on building skills for careers in fields like information technology, health sciences and advanced manufacturing, Dougherty noted. And rather than being merely a lower-track option for students who struggle academically, career and technical education can provide a pathway into a variety of workforce options, including credential and certificate programs at the postsecondary level.

Arkansas is one of the few but growing number of states beginning to include workforce skills as part of every student’s high school experience.

Under rules that took effect with the 2013-2014 school year, all high school students in the state must take six units of “career focus” coursework to graduate, which they can fulfill with career and technical education courses. Arkansas is also one of the few states that has linked K-12, postsecondary and workforce data for long enough so that questions about the efficacy of its workforce programs can be addressed.

As the report found, 89 percent of students in Arkansas took at least one career and technical education class, with students taking five classes on average.

In addition, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently launched the “Be Pro Be Proud” initiative, an interactive traveling workshop aimed at encouraging student participation in a dozen different professions, including carpentry, plumbing, welding, computer programming and others.

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According to the state chamber, about 60,000 of what late last year was a record 5.8 million job openings in the U.S. existed in Arkansas, but only 1 in 3 parents said they would encourage their children to pursue a technical career, despite their advanced skills and high pay.

Notably, many of those jobs openings, both in Arkansas and nationwide, have been in the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. But the report found that STEM career and technical education was among the least popular concentrations for students in Arkansas – though STEM courses were more popular in city schools than elsewhere.

“Concentrating in STEM is not appealing, not useful, or not possible due to limited course offerings and high academic barriers to entry,” Dougherty wrote in the report.

Also when it came to STEM fields, male students were overrepresented, while women and low-income students were underrepresented.

The report comes as states are re-imagining their accountability systems under the new federal education law and looking for ways to incorporate and assess workforce readiness and eliminate the stigma of technical and vocation education.

The White House has been equally focused on technical and vocational education.

For the past three years, President Barack Obama has used his State of the Union address to tout the potential benefits of things like apprenticeship programs, especially when it comes to filling the country’s job openings in the U.S. and putting a dent in the skills gap.