Hands-on doesn’t mean minds-off: CTE and the future of jobs

February 1, 2018 | Posted in: Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Sometimes, for fun, I ask my kids what they want to be when they grow up.

Kids, as we know, say the darndest things.

Some of their answers include: Power Ranger, fast food worker, motorcycle mechanic, famous soccer player, singer, lawyer (okay, I made them say that last one.)

Although my children are 7 and 9 years old, it won’t be long before these conversations turn a bit more serious. I will support them no matter what they choose to do. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be looking at a range of options for them as they grow into their teenage years.

Author Tim Elmore is the president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit that focuses on cultivating leadership skills among young people. He is also the creator of the Habitudes youth leadership curriculum. He often visits public schools to deliver motivational speeches designed to accompany the Habitudes program.

On a recent visit to Cooperstown Central School District, Elmore said something that really hit home. One of his big messages to the school community was that students today are being prepared for careers that don’t even exist yet.

Another recent “Ah-ha!” moment came courtesy of Otsego Northern Catskills BOCES District Superintendent Nicholas Savin, with whom I was meeting to discuss promotion of BOCES Career and Technical Education programs.

ONC BOCES CTE students will often say they chose to come to BOCES because they like to work with their hands. They frequently say they have struggled in traditional classroom settings. Vocational programs in New York State, particularly those through BOCES, have been stigmatized as a place for students who, almost as an after-thought, are placed there because they aren’t as “smart” as students who are preparing for college.

But is this a myth?

“Hands-on doesn’t mean minds-off,” Savin said.

A  CTE education exposes high school students to real world opportunities and helps develop the “soft skills” necessary in the workplace, no matter what industry or occupation they may enter, according to Joe Booan, the assistant superintendent of student programs at ONC BOCES.

Booan indicated a high school CTE education in today’s world is often less about getting a student ready for the workforce immediately after high school and more about being a step on a pathway that includes an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree or a trade school.

The pace of technological change in the modern world can sometimes seem blistering and Elmore certainly appears to be on the right track with his observation. New York State’s public schools are preparing today’s students for the careers of tomorrow by incorporating STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs and concepts into the curriculum in ways both big and small. They are also bringing elements of traditional CTE programs into classrooms. For their part, BOCES administrators and instructors continually evaluate their own CTE programs to ensure they are relevant.

There are certainly challenges. Economic and workforce development officials in Chenango County recently indicated that high school graduates often lack basic skills, causing high turnover at some businesses.

Across the state, there is a surplus of both low skills workers for low skills jobs and high skills workers for high skills jobs. Although middle skills jobs make up half of the labor market in New York State, only 38 percent of the state’s workforce is trained to the middle skills level, according to the National Skills Coalition. This creates a middle skills gap.

At the other end of the spectrum in this country, the common perception is that a young person can graduate with a four-year college degree to set the stage for a successful adult life. Much of our public education system is aligned to support this paradigm. But this isn’t always the case.

In general, a college graduate has far better earning potential over their lifetimes than someone with just a high school diploma. But not all degrees are equally useful. Another major factor facing new high school graduates is student debt. Across the country, 44 million Americans owe a collective $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, with only about half of the loan holders believing that the financial benefits of the debt outweigh the costs, according to the Pew Research Center.

My family still has time to think about college and careers. So for now, we’ll enjoy our soccer games, our talent shows and the satisfaction of a good report card. But, just in case, what are the certifications or degrees required to be a Power Ranger?

Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is the father of a 7-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.

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