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Vocational Education: Another Path to Success

career and technical education

Vocational education is making a comeback in many school districts around the country. Known as “career and technical education,” or CTE, this evolution in high school education is allowing students to exit high school with skills well suited for the workforce. Students can pursue any avenue after receiving an education through CTE, and more students are opting to do so, so they can explore their options.

Focusing On What Works

CTE programs appeal to any student, whether they’re bound for a machine shop, salon, community college, or university.

In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 94 percent of high school students have taken a CTE course by graduation. That number includes 8.4 million postsecondary students seeking certificates and associate degrees in CTE fields.

“Attending a CTE technical campus does not limit postsecondary opportunities,” says Paul Galbenski, Dean of one of four Oakland Schools Technical Campuses (OSTC) in Oakland County, Michigan. “It is a force-multiplier for career paths and unlimited opportunities beyond high school.”

Career and Technical Clusters Pathways

CTE education allows students who are college and career bound students alike opportunities to come together in technical classes, doing away with rigid pathways that wouldn't allow them to explore other careers.

Clusters and pathways are used by many educational institutions, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE).

CTE programs are available in most U.S. states. An example of the CTE classes offered at one school district illustrates this new CTE landscape.

These programs combine both academic and technical training. They also “foster student learning that is both concrete and abstract,” as one 2014 American Education article describes it.

In other words, “we’re taking the technical skills and marrying them with the academic skills and this provides each student with a definite competitive advantage,” Galbenski says. “There’s no watered-down version. These courses are the real deal. They’re exactly what business and industry leaders say they want.”

Some CTE career paths require technical training that concludes by the end of high school. This allows students to earn certificates and get work right after graduation. Other programs begin with high school CTE classes, then require postsecondary attendance at trade schools that take from a few months to two years to complete.

Still other CTE high school paths lead to associate degrees or community college diplomas, while others pave the way to bachelor’s degrees.

Students also learn "soft skills" in their CTE classes. These skills focus on leadership, teamwork, communication skills, work ethic, and adaptability.


Today, there are “CTE concentrators.” These are students who concentrate on one CTE subject area as opposed to other students who explore several CTE subjects.

CTE concentrators have an average graduation rate of 95 percent, according to Jarrod Nagurka, Advocacy and Public Affairs Manager at ACTE.

“That’s 10 percentage points higher than the national average,” Nagurka says. “So, the old stereotype of what a CTE student looks like or what their postsecondary and career opportunities are is turning on its head.”

In addition to that, at least 90 percent of “traditional” high schools offer at least some CTE classes.

As noted by editors of the American Educator published in 2014, fairly early in the CTE evolution: “…Vocational education in much of the country has been undergoing a very real transformation, one that extends to both high school students who are career bound and to those who are college bound.

It is “now called career and technical education…. As teachers, administrators and policymakers begin to see cracks in the college-for-all-mentality, they are revisiting CTE as a viable and powerful option for students…

“…Once primarily viewed as an inferior program for low-income and minority children assumed incapable of taking on challenging work, CTE—as it is re-emerging today—is undergoing dramatic changes in terms of the curriculum offered.

“Today’s CTE advocates are committed to ensuring these programs do not track students or ‘dumb down’ the academics required of high schoolers.”

Transformation From Vocational Ed to CTE

A good prototype of a CTE program in 2019 is the Oakland Schools Technical Campuses, mentioned above. It is one of thousands of such high school CTE programs in the U.S. It serves students from the county’s 28 school districts and from charter and private schools.

A vocational program has existed in Oakland County schools since the 1960s. But it suffered during the college-readiness decades, receiving less funding, less attention, and the new “stigma” of shop class stereotypes.

All of this has changed dramatically, especially with a recent state program in Michigan called “The Marshall Plan,” which has pumped $100 million into CTE. This is one reason Michigan, along with North Carolina, is cited by ACTE as leaders in the CTE educational revolution.

OSTC consists of four strategically located campuses. It serves more than 2,700 students, who spend half-days at their respective CTE campus/program.

The Northeast Campus school building, where Galbenski is Dean, for instance, is 89,500 square feet and has a 2018-2019 enrollment of 690 students.

It’s a bustling place that looks and feels a bit like Main Street America. It consists of industrial shops, restaurants, salons, and more. Everywhere are students learning in classrooms and on the job.

Literally, culinary students operate a restaurant and cosmetology students a full-service salon, both open to the public.

And that’s the point, Galbenski says. These programs prepare students for real life, and “high wage, high skill, high demand careers. We have advisory boards, people from business and industry who meet with us to shape the latest credentials and equipment needed.”

CTE Means Choices

Students can enroll in apprenticeship programs. The hours they accumulate count toward their journeyman license, Galbenski adds. Overall, “students after graduating can enter right into the workforce. Or we have students go into the armed services, further in trade school, or community college, or four-year universities.”

Some students leave OSTC with a diploma and an associate degree, “and it costs them zero,” Galbenski says.

Also, “none of our students make minimum wage after graduation, because they already have skills.”

The program serves juniors and seniors. They attend two-and-a-half hours per day, five days a week, for up to two years. There are no athletic teams, no choir, or other such activities. Students can access these in their home district high schools.

However, “students at the technical campus can participate in Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSO) that provide for them an opportunity to develop leadership skills as well as compete in local, regional, state, and national technical skills competitions,” Galbenski says.

“Students at the campus also have the opportunity to join the National Technical Honor Society (NTHS), which provides student scholarships and the same level of prestige as the Honor Societies at their home high schools.”

Keith Smaltz, 18, is a Campaigns Coordinator here at Career Now. He attended OSTC Northwest during his junior year. He was in a program called the ITeam, he says, which focused on information technology, entrepreneurship, and advanced marketing. He chose this path “because I knew I had a business-oriented mindset and also because this program offered certifications.”

The program was set up like a corporation, he says. Teachers were “CEOs” and students had other positions. Schmaltz was “assistant manager of marketing.” ITeam “also offered skills that were not taught in any of my high school classes—skills like multitasking, interviewing, marketing concepts,” Smaltz says.

He especially enjoyed the focus on “hands-on instead of textbook” learning.

At OSTC, students’ grades are based on their technical and academic skills, career-ready skills, and the soft skills, described earlier in this report.

Instructors are all tradespeople themselves. They’re passionate about mentoring students.

Steve Langdon, welder and OSTC’s Welding and Fabrication instructor, says this isn’t just high school. “It’s a transitional place. You don’t become an adult overnight. You need to dress the part, walk the walk, and talk the talk.”

Meet The Students

OSTC student Marcus Hufnagel

Senior Marcus Hufnagel, 17, is a culinary and hospitality program student, and an ambassador. He has the poise of a junior CEO. At 6-feet-2, he makes eye contact with strangers, adding a smile, and addressing them as “sir,” or “ma’am.”

During a recent presentation of the culinary program to visiting underclassmen, he was articulate, warm, and fluid as he narrated making omelets, extolling the culinary program’s benefits.

“I try to promote the whole school when I give these presentations,” Hufnagel said later. “I love it—all the instructors there. I appreciate them so much.

“Another thing here is you get to meet new people from different schools. You learn how to talk to someone you have never met before. That helps set you up for college or whatever trade school you attend after you graduate.”

When he first visited OSTC to see what it was like, “it was very embracing, it was like: I fit in here. It was very hands-on, it had the kitchen, and after enrolling in the program, I’ve learned not just to cook but how to work effectively and efficiently around the kitchen, use the right terms, and so much more.”

He also says the “best thing” about OSTC is choice. “Let’s say, junior year, you don’t like the program you’re in, you can try something else—even halfway through the semester. If you’re not liking it, you can talk to them and say, ‘I would like to go to this program.’ They’ll switch you over.”

Hufnagel wants to open his own restaurant one day, so he takes finance and business classes at his home high school. He also plays football. All of this has earned him a scholarship to a four-year college in Michigan.

A Nearly Sure-Fire Way to Prepare

It’s difficult to argue with the effectiveness and success of the OSTC program, and similar CTE programs—especially as traditional college tuition rates increase year-over-year.

Says Keith Schmaltz, “I personally believe the majority of students could benefit from having the opportunity to select one of these programs at OSTC. My program not only provided me two certifications for my resume, it gave me a hands-on experience that taught me more about the ‘real world’ than any course in high school did.”

Of course, there are still challenges: getting the word out about CTE in general; continuing to increase the respect for the trades; addressing a shortage of guidance counselors; and various budget issues, though funding such as Michigan’s Marshall Plan offers stability and growth.

Still, bottom line, the goal of CTE is pretty straightforward, says Galbenski.

“Our north star is that every student graduates and progresses to postsecondary learning, no matter where that may be.”

If you’re interested in exploring more trade professions, check out the careers here: Career School Now.

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