A Different Path: Why We Must Promote Trade Schools and CTE Education

We find ourselves in an era where success is characterized as a straight path, with the first checkpoint being a four-year college. But before we go too far down this path, we must consider the immense variability in students’ strengths and versions of success. In a time of unparalleled economic hardship, it is time to catalyze our efforts by understanding and promoting the value of trade or vocational schools and Career and Technical Education programs. 

Based on education data recorded in 2020, 61.2% of people aged 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher in Loudoun County. The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says in 2019, 66.2% of high school graduates aged 16 to 24 went on to attend college or university. Between  2000 and 2018, total undergraduate enrollment has leaped by 26%, and it is estimated that by 2029 total undergraduate enrollment will reach 17 million students. 

Although these figures seem to project an air of educational success, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Of the students who attend college, a staggering 40% do not complete their education, and of the ones who do finish, according to BLS data cited in Forbes, 37% end up filling positions that only require a high school degree. 

On top of these grim statistics, there is an increasing shortage of technical skilled workers. In September 2019, the National Science Board reported that although the demand for trade-based professions such as auto workers and electricians is estimated to increase, the supply of workers to fill these positions will fall 3.4 million short of the mark. In response to this foreshadowed outcome, the report calls for a cultural awakening to recognize and dismantle the stigma of inferiority associated with trade or technical careers in the entire community.

According to a survey commissioned by StrataTech Education Group, 73% of parents and students found that high schools promoted the traditional 4-year college path while 45% of schools promoted 2-year college programs. Strikingly, even though 70% reported that their high school offers trade-based classes, only 32% said that their high school promoted trade school as a post-secondary school option. 

Patricia Hsieh, president of a community college in the San Diego area, highlighted the pervasive stigma associated with technical and career-oriented education in a speech at the 2017 conference for the American Association of Community Colleges.

“It is considered a second choice, second-class. We really need to change how people see vocational and technical education,” Hsieh said in her speech. 

Strikingly, even though 70% reported that their high school offers trade-based classes, only 32% said that their high school promoted trade school as a post-secondary school option. 

Fortunately, Loudoun Valley has the unique facet of being affiliated with a career and technical education institution, the Monroe Advanced Technical Academy (MATA). This might play a part in dissipating much of the stigma associated with this career path. 

The advantages of attending a trade school are many-fold for those whose interests lie with hands-on and application-based learning that can immediately be transferred to a job in the real world. One major advantage is that pursuing an education at a trade school can cost significantly less than the traditional college route. While a 4-year college education can cost anywhere between $67,000 and $172,000, the average cost of attending a trade school and acquiring economically viable skills is only $33,000 total. The costs of vocational education could be reduced even further if you go through a certification program at a community college. 

Another benefit of obtaining a trade-based education is that you will be entering a job market that is actually in need of your skills, resulting in increased job security or stability. This fact is perhaps best supported by the robust vocational education system in Germany. In 2017, about 1.3 million students in Germany were enrolled in the vocational education and training (VET) program, compared to the mere 190,000 people in the U.S. who registered for apprenticeship programs in the same year. 

This is important because Germany also has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the European Union. Germany’s template for vocational training, although not immediately transferable to the U.S. in its entirety, should compel us to promote this avenue of education while providing more opportunities for apprentices to be given ample guidance in a variety of businesses so that they are truly prepared and connected to the job market that they hope to enter. 

Another step that we can take in our community is more widely disseminating the value of MATA and CTE coursework in general. MATA offers a wide array of career pathways for students to follow, ranging from Building Construction and Auto Collision Repair to Television Production and Digital Moviemaking and Administration of Justice. 

At the end of completing the one- or two-year pathway, students can enter the job market with a certification in their field. Furthermore, 81% of MATA students go on to post-secondary education in the form of technical schools, 4-year universities or community college, according to a 2016-2017 fact sheet. The case for promoting MATA is supported by a 2018 study that analyzed the impact of attending a regional vocational and technical high school (RVTS) on graduation rates. A RVTS is simply an entire high school devoted to career-aligned education, just like MATA. The study found that students with significant financial insecurity who attended a RVTS were 32 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school, and the graduation rate for students without major financial insecurities who attended a RVTS increased by 23 percentage points, as reported by Brookings

Additionally, the inclusion of CTE in high school studies is crucial to ensuring that every student is being set up for success. The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research followed the outcomes of 16,000 students with disabilities from their 10th grade to one year past their estimated graduation date. Researchers found students with disabilities who took four or more credits of CTE courses in high school were more likely to graduate on time and find a job than their peers who took fewer CTE courses. 

However, the counterarguments for promoting trade schools heavily cannot be dismissed.  According to a 2017 study published in the Brookings Institute, former President Trump’s executive order that called for the expansion of apprenticeship programs to bolster the availability of vocational training opportunities should be viewed through a lens set on the future, when some skills demanded by the job market start losing their necessity. The early employment successes that characterize the trade-skills sector could be offset by future losses, due to the limitations of having a specific skill in a morphing and adapting economy. Furthermore, the study found that people with a general education foundation earned more over their entire lifetime than comparable peers who went through vocational programs instead. 

Despite the long-term drawbacks that may be realized, there are many ways to keep oneself relevant in the modern economy. For many students who attend a trade school, their future contains plans to obtain additional certifications. Furthermore, it is imperative that we realize that the point is not to promote trade schools over traditional schools, for it is well-known that obtaining a bachelor’s degree can significantly increase one’s income. According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the average college graduate earns about $78,000 a year, while someone with only a high school education earns $45,000. The point is to make the school community and the parents of students aware of the value of career and technical education pathways for those who do not feel engaged by the traditional pathway or who seek different avenues to obtain a version of success that is fulfilling and their own.