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How can Career and Technical Education build better employees?

Hands-on learning programs prepare grads for the workforce


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Ask any Colorado employer what their biggest stresses are, and most will include hiring and keeping talent at the top of that list.

In 2018, Colorado’s unemployment rate hovered around three percent, rising only slightly at the start of this year. Our statewide employment growth is spread out across sectors – impacting everything from technology to hospitality and health care to manufacturing.

As the demand for talent remains high, employers are increasing the number of new graduates they hire to fill key positions. According to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers plan to hire 16.6 percent more new graduates in 2019 than they did in 2018.

While our community colleges and universities are graduating record numbers of students to meet the demand, many employers report new graduates aren’t ready for the workforce – especially as it relates to applying the knowledge and skills they’ve learned through higher education to real-world settings, critical thinking and communication.

When I speak to employers across the state, I hear complaints about work ethic and writing skills. Often employers think new grads lack motivation or show up late to work more often than other employees. While motivation may be an issue for some new grads, in my experience the real gap is in transitioning from student life to the culture of the workplace.

For some students, transitioning to the eight-hour workday is a major challenge. Higher education is not a nine to five environment. Students adjust to learning at different times of day, and producing classwork at night or in off hours. For students balancing part- or full-time work during school like many across our state’s community college system, the transition to focusing on career only can also be jarring.

While some large employers are structured to take on the burden of transitioning inexperienced workers into the workforce through professional training programs, most are not. This is where Career and Technical Education (CTE) can fill the gap. CTE prepares learners to enter the workforce by giving them opportunities to practice what they are learning in a classroom environment through apprenticeship programs and other hands-on learning experiences.

In Colorado, our statewide CTE operations are housed within our community college system, a unique setup that allows us to leverage the internal resources of an educational system while reaching students earlier and more efficiently, from middle school to high school and through higher education and into the workforce.

Starting as young as middle school, Colorado students are able to combine career education with application through CTE courses. When students take CTE courses, they have the opportunity to explore a range of career paths while earning real-life work experience and college credits and experiencing workplace culture and expectations.

Currently, more than 150,000 middle and high school students take CTE courses through the Colorado Community College System (CCCS) and its partners. Students involved in CTE are far less likely to drop out of high school than the national average, a difference estimated to save the economy $168 billion each year. This combination of apprenticeship programs and other hands-on learning experiences better prepares CTE students to meet current workforce demands right after graduating or sometimes while they’re still earning their degree.

CTE programs partner with a variety of businesses across the state to create relevant, responsive and real CTE programming. For example, when Centura Health saw there was a nationwide shortage of medical assistants, they teamed up with Arapahoe Community College and Pueblo Community College to create unique CTE programming that helps students fill this gap. Through the apprenticeship program at Arapahoe Community College, students can now earn a medical assistant certificate in as little as six months. We need more employers like Centura Health to help us prepare students for the workforce, and more businesses to demand CTE as a critical role in building the workforce of the future.

CCCS is developing a statewide strategic vision and plan that considers the unique landscape and opportunities in Colorado over the next five years. This vision, branded Next Gen Ed, is all part of an initiative to strengthen Colorado communities using CTE. Feedback from students, parents, businesses and community members will guide the process, ensuring learners have access to quality CTE programs aligned with industry demand that lead to high wage, high skill, in-demand employment. 

As CTE becomes embedded into our education system, the gap between graduation and workforce readiness will shrink. Instead of gambling on new grads or investing huge amounts of money to teach professional skills while paying costly salaries, employers can invest in innovation, new growth or employee benefits – all things that will keep Colorado’s economy strong in the long term. To learn more about Career and Technical Education opportunities in Colorado, visit coloradostateplan.com.

About Sarah Heath: Sarah Heath, PhD, is the state director of CTE and the vice-chancellor of the Colorado Community College System.

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