With our Shortage of Skilled Workers, Career and Technical Education is Ready to be Taken Seriously

This story is part of Map to the Middle Class, a Hechinger Report series that explores how schools can prepare young people for the good middle-class jobs of the future.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — It was tough to nail down a favorite: maybe the chicken cordon bleu with sweet potatoes. But the lasagna was also amazing, and it was hard to top the scalloped potatoes that came with the prime rib.

Delivered desk-side on Thursdays before last bell, still hot from the kitchen and packed takeout style in brown paper bags, the meals were a buzzy new collaboration between Manchester School of Technology (MST) business students and the school’s Culinary Arts program. Beyond providing a weeknight meal plus leftovers to the 30 teachers and administrators who bought $60 memberships to the plan, the effort was also born of urgent need.

Career and technical education (CTE) programs such as those offered at MST — which feature academically and professionally rigorous classes and send graduates off to postsecondary programs at high rates — may be uniquely positioned to prepare young adults for the future of work.

As traditional blue-collar industries decline across the country, the casualties of automation and offshoring, they are increasingly being replaced by skilled service jobs such as those in health care, information technology and finance, according to research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. While good middle-class jobs are disappearing for people with only high-school diplomas, New Hampshire, with its workforce aging, is struggling to fill 17,000 jobs, many of them in skilled occupations.

And it’s only going to get worse. The state is losing its youth. Nearly 50 percent of New Hampshire’s college-going high school graduates are leaving the state. A significant factor is that college education in New Hampshire is the priciest in America. Those who leave seeking a more affordable education often do not return to the state to work, live and start families.

High-quality CTE, experts hope, will address many of these issues with retooled, up-to-date programs that help propel students to postsecondary education and, in the process, give them more in-state connections and prepare them not only for in-demand jobs but for the flexibility the future will require.

But career and technical education is in some ways still caught in the shadow of what experts call “grandpa’s vocational school.” Historically, such programs were limited to a handful of skilled trades that did not necessarily lead to well-paying jobs; students were separated into vocational and nonvocational categories early in their academic careers.

Like many career and technical schools, the Manchester School of Technology used to offer only a part-time program for juniors and seniors from nearby high schools, but MST gave itself a face-lift in 2012 when it launched its own full-time high school. Today, in the hope of getting young people excited about learning — and keeping them closer to home — the school is trying to cross-pollinate academic and technical instruction, which is how the chicken cordon bleu with sweet potatoes came about.

At MST, where students may study a wide range of sought-after careers, from game design and aeronautical engineering to HVAC and nursing, teachers and administrators are working overtime to innovate and prove the school’s worth, hoping to both increase and highlight the value of CTE in today’s job economy. Principal Karen Hannigan Machado travels annually to Washington to secure her school’s $650,000 allotment of Perkins funding (those funds are “just a drop in the bucket,” she said). Teachers and school counselors visit local middle schools to evangelize about MST’s college and career opportunities, and they organize open houses and special events to coax local businesses to provide internships for students.

To read the full story, visit PBS.com

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