Career and Technical Education Back From the Brink

Five years ago, Sandra Rhee was a freshman at Esperanza High School in Anaheim, Calif.

As she walked through the school to turn in a paper, the AP student took a turn around the theater and passed an open door. What she saw that day would change her forever.

“I saw a group of kids building robots,” says the 19-year-old, who is working toward a material science and engineering degree at the University of California Los Angeles. “I was so intrigued that I went inside, talked to the group, and got connected to Mr. Walt.”

Walt Walters (before his retirement in July) was the engineering and manufacturing instructor. In short, he was the shop teacher.

The word “shop” can easily invoke memories of an auto body garage, with young men in greasy jumpsuits hovering over the dirty engine of a 1950’s era car. At one time, shop classes were synonymous with specific trades: wood, metal, and mechanics. Shop was often connected to students who were good with their hands or struggling academically. The classes were a one-way track to a job, not a college education, creating a stigma that’s been hard to break.

“For the last 25 years, shop was viewed as a dirty old word,” says Walters, who is also chair
of the NEA Vocational, Career and Technical Educators’ Caucus. The group works to change this perception by informing parents and school counselors about the various paths that can lead to college or career.

“Post-secondary training is what we have to get across to them,” says the 38-year veteran
teacher, emphasizing that this could mean a college degree or a trade certification. The idea is to provide students with options.

The strategy appears to be working. Walters believes that vocational and CTE programs are coming back from the brink of extinction. He attributes the resurrection to growing industry sectors, such as manufacturing, which is expected to add more than 350,000 jobs to the payroll by 2015, as cited by the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation.

This growth, paired with the need for highly skilled laborers, means CTE programs have more appeal.

Not Your Father’s Woodworking Class

Career and technical programs are more advanced today than in years past, with high-end shop classes offered by high schools across the U.S. At Esperanza, students work with a water-jet cutting machine—a $75,000 piece of equipment typically reserved for colleges, universities, and professional settings—which offers accuracy, speed, and no alteration in material properties. The school also has a 3-D printer—Rhee calls it a “crazy” piece of equipment—which allows students to produce models in little time.

Today’s shop classes also include a heavy dose of academics, which employers’ want, as backed by a 2011 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Pathways to Prosperity revealed that a high number of U.S. employers complained about young adults—specifically, high school students—lacking the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century, especially in oral and written communication, critical thinking, and professionalism.

The shop classes at Esperanza offer A through G approved courses, which are required for admission to the University of California and the California State University systems. This means, students must apply core subject standards, such as English Language Arts, whenever possible. Walter’s students spent a year working on a fully functioning racecar. They wrote and presented a design report, detailing cost, manu- facturing process, engine design, and its energy efficiency. Critical thinking comes into play when designs don’t turn out as planned. In one instance, the racecar turned right instead of left. Students were quick to reassess and determine that the A-Arms were inverted.

To help students boost their professionalism, Walters stresses the importance of “soft skills,” like timeliness, efficiency, and a strong work ethic—practices that are as valuable as rigor, especially for young people who have been hit hardest by the Great Recession.

“Mr. Walt’s class was equally intense as my AP classes,” Rhee says, adding that he was a tough teacher.

The toughness encouraged her to earn an industry accreditation by obtaining SolidWorks certification before graduating high school. “People are impressed when I say I work with SolidWorks,” she says, referring to the software program that provides mechanical CAD, design validation, and data management skills, which employers seek.

Although Rhee chose to attend a four-year university, other students picked up internships or jobs at nearby companies, earning $20 to $30 an hour. Whether they lead students to higher education classrooms, or to the workplace, these types of opportunities grow from existing relationships between shop teachers and employers. In turn, the opportunities contribute to the success of CTE programs because they illustrate the value of real-world experiences.

And for many employers, when it’s time to consider applicants, experience is often the missing element. “We’re finding that many of today’s engineers are theory with no practical application,” Walters says, referring to college graduates entering the field. “They can design, but cannot build.” His students can do both.

Industry Input
Esperanza is among many U.S. schools that hope to become more relevant to students and responsive to local economies and national trends. To help, employers and educators are partnering on advisory committees, which are required by the Carl D. Perkins Act—federal legislation that provides support and funding for CTE programs at the state and local levels.

Joe Bryne started his own manufacturing business at the age of 21. By the time he retired, nearly 20 years later, the company was worth millions of dollars. Bryne understands business and he knows how it’s supposed to work. When Walters, eight years ago, recruited him to sit on an advisory committee he immediately saw some issues.

“There is a disconnect between education and real-world experience in terms of what we need as employers,” he says, adding that high school and college graduates act as if they are doing the employer a favor just by showing up to work. “We need them to go back to basics,” starting with work ethics. Another issue he saw with new employees was that they didn’t understand current technology and industry standards.

The input from Bryne and other committee members help educators keep CTE programs up to date by offering support and advice to schools, as well as help students manage employer expectations. Committees can also help plan outlines, course structure, or content. Additionally, they provide real-world workplace examples and help students understand employers’ expectations.

Walters says advisory committees have helped him change or implement new curriculum based on industry need.

The Perkins Act is up for reauthorization, and NEA has offered Congress six guiding principals to consider, including the creation of a strong pipeline of quality, credentialed, and experienced educators. But the big challenge, says Walters is “not enough teachers.” Moreover, many of the teacher preparation programs for CTE programs have dwindled.

As the legislation for teacher recruitment and retention is renewed, CTE instructors must receive appropriate training in pedagogical practices and mentoring by experienced teachers. Provisions should also ensure that more CTE teachers are involved in decision-making activities.

Despite the challenges, Walters is optimistic about the survival of CTE programs. He says industry sectors are speaking louder than before about the skillsets that are needed from employees and the education community and legislators are finally listening.

“We didn’t know what industry needed and they didn’t know how we worked—and that’s where I saw the opening to be an advocate, expand my connections, and help create awareness,” emphasizing that eight years ago Esperanza’s advisory committee had only 10 members. Today, there are 40 people from the business community.

And if Rhee is any indication of the benefits these programs offer, the U.S. has a lot to gain. The programs may be the catalyst that provides students with viable options to college or career, while helping to address industry sector growth and workforce shortages.

“I didn’t know I wanted to go into engineer- ing,” says Rhee, “but after I joined the engineering and manufacturing academy I found it was a new challenge for me, not just learning the academics, but working with my hands, too.”

Now, the UCLA student is studying the science and chemistry of materials, composites, and plastics. Her personal interest is in renewable energy, but says she can go into other fields that produce lighter weaponry for the military or manufacture gorilla glass, which is the glass used to cover smartphones and tablets, for tech companies.

Had it not been for this one shop class that occurred every Thursday for three hours after school, Rhee says she would have simply majored in biology or chemistry—great fields, but subjects that were not for her.

Says Rhee: “I am a problem solver [and] a hands-on learner. I am the type of person who would choose robots and mechanics over lab work or chemical analysis. I enjoy the process of creating something—the brainstorming, the design process, the manufacturing…I have found my place in how I want to impact the world: helping develop economical alternative energy sources,” says the student who found her passion just by going through an open door.;