College and career readiness for all students

Miller Photography UFT Vice President for Career and Technical Education High Schools Sterling Roberson comments from the floor during “CTE at the Core,” an all-day conference at UFT headquarters on Jan. 28.
Miller Photography Roberson chats with an attendee.

It used to be that when we spoke out about the paths to success that career and technical education opens for all students, and the pitfalls that await if they aren’t job-ready, we stood alone. Now we have allies in business and higher education, and many in the Department of Education, too.

This growing consensus was evident at a recent conference, “CTE at the Core,” on Jan. 28 at UFT headquarters, where the clear message was that CTE is crucial to achieving college and career readiness for all students, whether they are academically or vocationally inclined. The DOE agrees, at least formally, even as its long march to close CTE high schools advances.

Some 500 participants took part — mostly CTE teachers, but also administrators and staff from the CTE Technical Assistance Center of NY; the Advisory Council for Career and Technical Education; and staff from several DOE departments, including the Office of Postsecondary Readiness. The conference showed we are all mostly on the same page about the challenges we face and the possible solutions.

As UFT members know and as conference speakers emphasized, any young person without a high school degree will find decent jobs just about out of reach. Even with a high school diploma, graduates with weak foundational skills will face bleak job prospects.

Even as four-year high school graduation rates go up, if students aren’t job-ready with the reading, technical and social skills to make it in a complex work environment, they’ll be lost. The military rejects seven of 10 applicants, almost all of them for lacking a high school degree or failing to pass a basic literacy test. Financial institutions say they go through 10 interviews to find one competent teller. Studies also show that entry-level jobs require reading competency above high school level. It’s cold out there.

Making the situation more critical is that our city, like the nation, suffers from a shortage of highly skilled workers. As conference speakers noted, we’re still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession and a slow recovery, and also suffer from a skills gap. Some 200,000 out-of-state workers come to New York to fill jobs that employers say locals can’t do. Businesses, particularly small startups in places such as the Brooklyn Navy Yard that incubate new enterprises, say they don’t have the capital to train their own workforce.

These businesses need workers whose job skills include the ability to act professionally, especially in positions that deal with the public. That’s where schools — not just high schools, but middle schools and colleges — come in. That’s where internships come in, too.

What to do? There was no shortage of ideas at the conference.

Teachers need to know that funding is there not just to prepare students for the workforce, but also to retrain teachers in an era when technology changes rapidly. But schools cannot bear sole responsibility for funding these programs. City, state and federal government agencies need to fund programs, too, and not just in high schools. Participants also agreed on the need for more internships so that they are available to all students. Internships allow students to learn about particular industries, acclimate to the world of work and grow in maturity.

Work-based learning reinforces classroom learning. But for students to be able to avail themselves of internships, school schedules will need to be adjusted. And, to cover the costs of such work programs, Jack Powers, the chair of the CTE Advisory Council, suggested: “Cut down executive salaries and create paid internships.”

Beyond internships, existing programs such as moot courts, mock trials, Virtual Enterprise and Model UN offer students a taste of what life outside the classroom is like.

So does job shadowing, where students work with individual mentors. The HS of Hospitality Management in Manhattan has such a program. As one speaker suggested, using the apparel industry as an example, brand loyalty means today’s interns are tomorrow’s consumers.

We need industry on board. Every school should have corporate partners, which Thomas A. Edison CTE HS and Transit Tech HS each have, to name two. Once a school has such a connection, it’s easier to find and network with employers. Schools also need to encourage industry certification. It’s also critical that we institutionalize career training. Young people need to know resume writing, public speaking, interviewing skills and “dressing for success.”

Some politicians have yet to get on board with the need for CTE for all children, not just those who struggle academically. But we in New York currently see support for quality CTE programs at the highest levels of state and federal government. We must make the most of this opportunity.

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