On Sunday, July 10, the New York Times featured a front page article concerning the effectiveness of vocational schools and the budget cuts they face.   The article is the first of the Times’ “Learn to Earn” series, which will examine vocational education and training.

Vocational schools serve as a great way of addressing the skills gap in employment by providing students with technical skills that are in high demand and directly transferable to the workforce.  Vocational schools also help to engage students in practical fields and combat the high school dropout crisis, with 90 percent of students who focus on career-oriented coursework graduating in four or five years, as opposed to the national high school graduation rate of about 75 percent, according to data compiled by the Department of Education.  Despite the stigma against vocational schools, students who receive a vocational license or certificate are capable of earning more than those with a bachelor’s degree.

Funding for career technical education (CTE) in high schools and community colleges, which comes primarily from Perkins grants to states, is at risk of extensive cuts.  As Motoko Rich reports,

“The [Obama] administration has proposed a 20 percent reduction in its fiscal 2012 budget for career and technical education, to a little more than $1 billion, even as it seeks to increase overall education funding by 11 percent.”

Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education explained the proposed cuts during Corporate Voice’s Annual Partners Meeting in June.  As Dann-Messier said, CTE funding needs to be directed towards the “most rigorous, proven programs,” rather than investing in a “ ‘dumping grounds’ for lower-performing adult learners.”  Dann-Messier emphasized that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan understands the need for vocational programs, but he believes that improvements in CTE programs and reforms in accountability need to be made before the department can “justify full funding.”   The Obama Administration has prioritized raising overall academic standards and graduation rates over vocational training in high schools and community colleges.

Vocational schools have already done extensive work to improve core academics.  By 2007, Massachusetts vocational students were passing English and math standardized tests at higher rates than the rest of the state.  Not all secondary vocational school teachers are trained in academic integration in vocational classes.  Those who are, however, have seen students’ standardized test scores in English and math rise to an average of 17 to 21 percentile points higher than those of students whose teachers were not trained in academic integration.

Vocational and technical schools and programs do have a great potential to engage students in technical training in practical fields, which will help meet employer needs and enhance the competitiveness of the U.S.workforce. These programs can also have great value in leading students that don’t excel in traditional academic courses toward meaningful educational and career pathways. Given that federal funding for vocational and technical programs is at risk, employers have a unique role to play in creating Learn and Earn partnerships with community colleges and higher education institutions to provide work-life and educational supports to youth in these programs so they can complete their postsecondary education. Supports like tuition assistance, scheduling flexibility so students can work part time, mentoring and other financial assistance greatly enhance the changes a student can complete their degrees.

Corporate Voices for Working Families, through its Learn and Earn initiative, is documenting, sharing and encouraging these types of best-practice Learn and Earn partnerships where businesses take a leading role in working with higher education institutions to design programs to further the education of their employees and to train future members of the workforce.  By partnering with CTE programs, business can help ensure that vocational students graduate with the critical thinking, teamwork, communications, and technical skills that are so vital to America’s workforce, and the competitiveness of U.S. businesses.

  • View videos of this “Learn to Earn” series, created in partnership with Purple States, the New York Times, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Downtown Community Television Center. These videos will be accompanied by New York Times Business coverage illustrating the value of vocational and technical education.

Hannah Furgang is an intern with Corporate Voices for Working Families