Career and technical education (CTE) programs give students the real-world skills and experiences for a wide range of career fields and industries, especially those that require technical (hard) skills. In 2022, technical workers are in extremely high-demand, with more jobs than people to fill them. Students who pursue a CTE focus in high school are making an incredibly wise investment for their future, no matter their career pathway.
With this in mind, school districts are increasing investments in CTE programs. This is great news – but only if enrollment statistics follow the school’s investments. Increasing enrollment in CTE programs isn’t always easy (there are a lot of misconceptions and barriers to address), but the more students enroll, the better for the school, students and overall economy. So we’re sharing some strategies for how to get more students enrolled in your CTE programs this school year.
There’s no doubt there’s a shortage of skilled talent in the workforce. So why aren’t more students choosing a CTE route that can lead them to one of these jobs?
There are a number of barriers that might keep a student from enrolling in CTE courses. On the top of that list are misconceptions about who these programs are for. Some (totally untrue) statements we’ve heard about career and technical education include: It’s not for kids who want to go to college. It’s for “troubled” students. A traditional academic pathway is more valuable. I worked hard so my kids could go to university and have a better life ( a common statement from parents).
Before we get into strategies to increase CTE enrollment, we want to disprove those misconceptions about CTE. A few years ago, the U.S. Department of Education published findings on the long-term effect of student participation in CTE programs. See the data story here.
8 years after high school graduation, those with a CTE focus (2 or more courses in a specific program of study) had higher median annual earnings. Plus, CTE concentrators were more likely to graduate high school and more likely to enroll in postsecondary education.
CTE is for students who want to go direct to workforce, enroll in technical or community college, go on to a university, or enter into an apprenticeship. In other words, it’s for all students. Even if a student doesn’t pursue a skilled trade, the hands-on skills and industry-relevant knowledge they gain in their CTE courses will set them years ahead of their peers in post-secondary and in the workforce.
The data tell us that success follows CTE students. And yet, while the U.S. DoE’s study found 77% of students had taken at least one CTE course throughout high school, only 37% pursued a CTE focus over those four years.
So how do we get more students to focus on CTE?
Who can make it happen: Administrators, Communications & Marketing Teams
Let’s start with perhaps the simplest fix: exposure to your CTE program. You may have an excellent program offering a variety of career focuses, work-based learning opportunities, post-secondary incentives, and hands-on skill learning. Students who have gone through the program have found long-term success in their career pathways. You’re doing everything right, except…
Your students (and their parents) simply may not know all that’s being offered.
Consider these scenarios below as a litmus test for how well you’re creating exposure for your CTE program:
In the school: Other programs and activities are visible: trophy cases and hanging banners display athletic programs. Artwork hung in the hallways shows off the art program. The music department puts on concerts. What about your automotive program? Robotics program? Welding lab? Are those projects and creations displayed prominently? Do new enrolling families know about your CTE program – what courses are offered, what the learning experience is like, what pathways it can lead to for students?
Digital presence: Do you highlight these classes on your school’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts? Are you inviting local press to do stories around key events? Does your district send engaging emails to families highlighting CTE students, competitions, events and activities?
Extra-curricular outreach: Do you set up events specifically to increase exposure to your program, inviting local community members and businesses to see the courses offered?
We’ve seen a whole range of methods to increase exposure that have really worked well. Here are a few:
➡️ West Bend School District hosted a special showcase and tour of their CTE program. Attendees included the Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, local business leaders, and media.
➡️ New Berlin School District hosted a community night, welcoming parents and families to come see upgrades to their CTE program.
➡️ An instructor at Germantown High School had the idea to use their new FANUC industrial robot in core classes to teach math & physics concepts. This would give more students the chance to work with technologies they might not have had exposure to – which could lead to higher enrollment in CTE courses.
➡️ Lomira Middle School has students learning on the FANUC elearning platform in 8th grade – this exposure can get them interested in enrolling in CTE when they get to high school.
Who can make it happen: Administrators, CTE Coordinators, Post-Secondary Partners
One barrier to enrollment is around how easily a student can access the classes they’d like to attend. Career and technical education is often unique in that certain programs may be offered off-campus. The U.S. DoE report considered how accessibility affects enrollment.
The report showed a wide range of responses (click to expand):
Every school district is different; we’ve seen schools succeed with a variety of methods. The key is to develop a sustainable program that works best for your district and attracts students to enroll. Again, do your best to remove any barriers to enrollment. That can include providing courses at several locations, bussing to off-site labs, or offering hybrid options.
Here are some examples of districts who have developed creative solutions to making their CTE programs more accessible:
➡️ The Mobile Skills Lab is just that: a mobile classroom loaded with advanced manufacturing training equipment and curriculum that can travel to four different partner school districts.
➡️ Some states have dedicated ISDs or Career Centers that focus entirely on CTE courses. Sometimes, these programs are hosted at the local technical or community college.
➡️ The Manufacturing 4.0 Co-op brought together four rural school districts to implement Industry 4.0 courses, manufacturing business partnerships, and post-secondary pathways. By pooling their combined resources (which are limited in rural areas), the co-op was able to purchase the best equipment available and reach more students in the process.
One very simple solution to begin offering more CTE courses is through eLearning. Amatrol has a multimedia, interactive eLearning library that houses over 300 courses.
With access to a computer, students can get a great head start on their CTE development. And the curriculum comes with all the instructor resources you need for easy implementation.
Who can make it happen: CTE Coordinators, Instructors (+ Marketing & Communications)
Students that are attracted to career and technical education programs tend to be more hands-on learners. They’re looking for a classroom experience that will give them real-world knowledge they can directly apply to a career pathway.
Particularly in the skilled trades, hands-on, industry-relevant teaching is crucial. So the first step here is to make sure your classes are as interactive and project-based as possible. But this brings us back to strategy #1: it doesn’t matter how much advanced technology you have in your labs if they aren’t visible to prospective students. Put equipment in a lab near an area where there is plenty of foot traffic. Your non-CTE students will see the classroom and be curious to learn how they can get their hands on the equipment. Have posters and banners of students working in the labs prominently displayed around the school. Create videos or share photos online of the hands-on learning that takes place in these classrooms.
At LAB Midwest, we provide the equipment and curriculum to deliver this level of learning for a wide range of course areas, including:
If you have advanced technologies like industrial robots, mechatronics systems, drones, augmented reality welders, two-in-one CNC mills + 3D printers…students are going to love coming to class.
Who can make it happen: CTE Coordinators, Instructors, Post-Secondary Partners, Industry & Community Partners
Career and technical education is all about equipping students with the knowledge, skills and tools to pursue a career pathway. Among these tools are post-secondary credits, industry-recognized certifications, work-based learning opportunities, youth apprenticeship programs, internships and more. Your CTE students are highly motivated by these extra incentives, above and beyond academic grades.
The more opportunities you provide students to gain relevant experience and credentials, the better.
The U.S. DoE report showed incentives offered through the CTE programs polled, with the following results (click to expand):
This is perhaps the most collaborative, involved strategy because it really requires multiple entities to work together to create these opportunities for students. If you’re not already, start a dialogue with your post-secondary partners around building articulated or dual-credit classes. Talk with your local employers about work-based learning and internship opportunities. Talk with community organizations and your state Department of Workforce Development (or similar) about setting up a Youth Apprenticeship program.
The direction you take depends on your region, the classes you offer, and the resources you have. But the more stakeholders you bring to the table, the more you can accomplish for your students.
Below is a list of organizations who offer industry-recognized credentials that will highly benefit your CTE students (with industry focus in parentheses).
To offer real-world work experience for your students, consider the examples below.
Some other organizations in the Midwest who are providing career-focused experience outside the classroom include:
We’ve worked with schools across the Midwest to develop the best CTE programs in the US. From small rural districts, to dense urban areas, our goal is to find the solution that fits the needs of your students and community.
If you’re looking to increase enrollment in CTE or bolster your program to provide industry-relevant courses, let’s connect.