OP-ED: Pandemic underscores demand for career and technical education
The COVID-19 pandemic has attacked the physical and financial health of communities across the country.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 6 million Americans have been infected by the coronavirus, but each and every one of us have felt the ripple effect as our economy came to a screeching halt. The economic impact has manifested itself through scenes of boarded up storefronts, millions of Americans out of work, and many families concerned about their wellbeing.
In part, we’ve learned the hard way just how much we rely upon a highly skilled and trained workforce. The pandemic has thrust many hardworking men and women who are often overlooked into the limelight, as we rely upon these professionals now more than ever.
Many of these individuals obtained their skills from career and technical education, or CTE. Just prior to the pandemic, there were nearly 7 million job openings across the country. Contrasting that figure with the potential of our nation’s learners — whether they are entering the workforce for the first time, learning a new skill, or reentering the workforce after some time away — and there is an obvious disconnect. This is often referred to as the “skills gap,” and CTE is a proven way to bridge this divide.
As co-chair of the bipartisan House Career and Technical Education Caucus, I’ve been proud join my friend and co-chair Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) to advocate for a skills-based education since my earliest days in Congress. Through the bipartisan nature of the caucus and years of advocacy, in 2018 we were able to usher in new investments and put a fresh face on the federal legislation that governs CTE for the 21st Century.
Today, perhaps the most timely piece of CTE legislation is the Skills Renewal Act, a bill that would create a flexible, fully refundable skills training credit of $4,000 to support career and technical education opportunities such as apprenticeships and certificate programs. This would go a long way to benefit those who have found themselves recently unemployed during the pandemic, through no fault of their own.
While the pandemic is currently at the forefront of all our minds, there is a bright future ahead of us all. We will rise from this crisis thanks to the resiliency, grit, and determination of the American people.
The question remains, however, how do we strengthen, support, and set up the next generation of essential workers for success? It begins with removing the stigma associated with career and technical education and educating students and parents about the benefits of a skills-based education. Some of the fastest growing professions today are careers that can be attained through CTE.
A one-size-fits-all approach to education is not an effective way to prepare students for the workforce, and CTE should not be viewed as “plan B.” It is a valuable educational option that empowers learners of all ages to take control of their personal and professional futures.
Unfortunately, many students go to college without being fully aware of their education and career options. According to the Coalition of Career Development, about one-third of high school graduates do not go to college right away and often struggle to find meaningful work. That is why last fall, Rep. Langevin and I introduced the Counseling for Career Choice Act.
The bill will provide $40 million a year for each of the next five fiscal years for grants that support CTE students and school counselors. We must provide effective counseling resources to ensure every student, parent, and family can be exposed to the benefits of a skills-based education.
Just as we equip CTE learners with the skills to succeed, we must also empower educators and counselors to help students capitalize on the availability of an academically rigorous skills-based education, complete their training on time, and find a path to a profession they can be proud of.
Developing a 21st Century workforce to meet the technical demands of the modern workplace is paramount to our country’s success and future. Cybersecurity remains one field particularly in demand and we must prepare our next generation of learners to protect our county’s critical assets, systems, and networks.
To protect sensitive data and critical infrastructure components, Rep. Langevin and I teamed up again on the Cybersecurity Skills Integration Act. This will create a pilot program within the Department of Education to award competitive grants to education-employer partnerships for CTE programs that integrate cybersecurity education into curriculum. These grants will help prepare students for careers to protect critical infrastructure.
The efforts of the bipartisan Career and Technical Education Caucus have shown the great potential of our American education system, which should encourage pathways to greater opportunities and experiences that can be life changing. We must remove the barriers that discourage participation and make it easier to get the education people need and begin participating in the workforce.
By providing students of all ages and experience levels with a clearer picture of what the workforce entails and more specifically, by investing in career and technical education, we can help individuals realize their true potential, find satisfying, family-sustaining careers, and in turn, make a more competitive and productive America.