Key to a healthy economy is an effective system of career and technical education (CTE) and training. For CTE systems to be attractive to a large segment of their student populations, they must offer a viable route not only to well-paying occupations requiring less than a four-year college degree, but also a pathway into further education and training that can prepare them for professional positions. These pathway options must be well understood by students and parents alike. In our experience, CTE systems risk collapse when secondary enrollment falls below about 40 percent of total enrollment because that signals that CTE pathways are perceived as a last resort for students who have no other options.
Strong CTE systems offer high-quality training focused on modern technical skills taught on state-of-the-art equipment by instructors and mentors who themselves have recent and relevant experience and practice in the field. CTE study can take place in school settings that have all the attributes of real industrial settings, in actual business settings, or a school-worksite combination. Employers are encouraged to take a lead role in the design of CTE programs to ensure that students are targeting skill standards that reflect industry expectations and current skill needs. It is also important that CTE programs are aligned with industry demand to ensure that newly trained students can smoothly transition from schooling and training into in-demand jobs.
Singapore has made CTE a cornerstone of its economic development strategy. Sixty-five percent of secondary students who go on to postsecondary chose a career pathway option: 25 percent enroll in Institute for Technical Education (ITE) campuses and 40 percent attend one of Singapore’s five polytechnics. Students are drawn to the ITE and polytechnics as both offer hands-on, world-class education and training programs with options for moving into immediate employment or further education. These institutions have close connections to industry partners that set the standards, provide state-of-the-art equipment for instruction, and assess candidates for diplomas.
Switzerland is one of several European countries with a “dual” career and technical education training system in which students combine learning in school with learning in workplace settings. Approximately 70 percent of Swiss teenagers enroll in the CTE upper secondary program (rather than its academic counterpart) as it offers a hands-on, contextualized, and applied approach to learning. Employers play an important role in developing qualifications and assessments for the industry, establishing curriculum, and providing apprenticeships that give students paid work experience in the field. The Swiss system also intentionally allows students to move seamlessly between academic and career-focused studies as well as from CTE on to higher education, motivating students to pursue additional qualifications.
In Finland, about half of upper secondary students choose to enroll in the CTE pathway (rather than the traditional high school) as they see it as a way to explore and learn more about career options. Each year they spend at least one term (six to eight weeks) gaining on-the-job experience as an apprentice or intern. Importantly, students and parents know beyond the initial occupational certificate, there are opportunities for further education and training, including enrollment in universities of applied science or traditional universities.