Are Career-Tech Students Preparing for Jobs That Actually Exist?

Not long ago, the New York Times ran a revealing article titled “The Typical American Lives Only 18 Miles From Mom.” Based on a comprehensive survey of older Americans, the authors reported that, “Over the last few decades, Americans have become less mobile, and most adults—especially those with less education or lower incomes—do not venture far from their hometowns.” In fact, “the median distance Americans live from their mother is eighteen miles, and only 20 percent live more than a couple of hours’ drive from their parents.”

The implications they drew from that compelling statistic focused on child and elder care. But there’s a big message for education, too: If young people aren’t going far from home, then their hometowns need to do far better at readying them to succeed at local colleges and in careers. Which makes it more important than ever that high school career and technical education (CTE) programs mesh with real-world job opportunities in their own and nearby communities. Yet to our knowledge no study has empirically examined the extent to which that message has been heard—that is, the degree to which CTE course-taking in high school aligns with the kinds of work available in local labor markets.

It’s not because the field thinks that’s unimportant. In fact, the recent reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act—the principal federal education program supporting CTE—expressly aims to “align workforce skills with labor market needs.” But it does little to define or operationalize such alignment. Likewise, a recent report by ExcelinEd admonishes states to phase out “dead end” CTE programs that “do not reflect labor market demand” and “develop new programs of study to address gaps in industry demand.”

But broad goals and exhortation won’t get it done, and forging better connections is hard when you don’t know what those gaps in industry demand look like.

So we embarked on finding out—meaning to determine whether students in high school CTE programs are more likely to take courses in in-demand and/or high-wage industries, both nationally and locally. Reliably answering those questions, however, meant connecting multiple dots. It required mapping the zillion different CTE courses offered in U.S. high schools first to their associated “career clusters” then to real-world occupations, as categorized by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Those dots, to the best of our knowledge, have never been joined before—and we knew it wouldn’t be easy. Fortunately, Cameron Sublett, associate professor of education at Pepperdine University, was undeterred. Having previously examined the link between high school CTE course-taking and postsecondary credentials, Dr. Sublett was keen to see whether that same course-taking might relate to local labor market demand.

Fordham’s uber-talented senior research and policy associate, David Griffith, agreed to co-write the report with him.

After much troubleshooting, Dr. Sublett succeeded in linking nationally representative data on CTE course-taking from the High School Longitudinal Survey to employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making it possible to address these central research questions: To what extent do national CTE course-taking patterns at the high school level reflect the current distribution of jobs across fields and industries? To what extent is CTE course-taking in high school linked to local employment and industry wages? And how do patterns of CTE course-taking differ by student race and gender?

The analysis yielded four key findings.

1. Many fields that support a significant number of U.S. jobs see little CTE course-taking in high school.

2. In most fields, students take more CTE courses when there are more local jobs in those fields.

3. Paradoxically, in most fields, students also take fewer CTE courses when local wages are higher. In other words, it appears that CTE is connecting students with jobs that are locally plentiful (per the previous takeaway) but relatively low-paying by industry standards.

4. Although national CTE course-taking patterns differ significantly by race and gender, all student groups exhibit similar responses to local labor market demand.

In part, these results show that CTE programs need to do a better job of connecting students with higher-paying jobs. As recent research from the Brookings Institution and others finds, different sectors in the economy have vastly different opportunities for the kind of good jobs that allow people to make it into the middle class, especially in the absence of a college degree. But we also have a hard time finding fault with students taking CTE courses in industries that support more local jobs, even if they earn lower wages. Any job is better than no job for young people just getting started.

Regardless of how you view that trade-off, we are not suggesting that high school CTE courses should bear the full burden of connecting students to the local job market—or even that today’s local job market should govern what kids study in preparation for tomorrow’s careers.

What we are suggesting—and what these results show—is that the country needs the local business, industrial, and secondary and postsecondary education sectors to join hands. At the top of their to-do list should be better integrating what is taught in high school CTE programs with the skills, knowledge, and positions needed in local labor markets, both now and in the future—perhaps through more paid work apprenticeships and “sector strategies” that incorporate high school CTE into employer-driven partnerships that focus on regional, industry-specific needs.

In a handful of cities, such as Louisville and Nashville, industry and education leaders are already collaborating to make that vision a reality for their students. For the sake of all of the young Americans who will live no more than eighteen miles from mom, we hope that more communities follow in their footsteps.

Amber Northern is senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College