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Career and technical education is not an alternative pathway

Bisma Sheikh is the IB Americas Development Associate and an IB Diploma Programme graduate.

Growing up in a rural Virginia community, if you weren’t being encouraged to pursue an advanced diploma with dual-enrollment, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate courses, there was a pretty good chance that you were in one of the vocational training programs, most commonly nursing or agriculture.

Vocational training courses have long been used as an alternative to college-preparatory classes, particularly for students who are deemed not likely to pursue a post-secondary degree and for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Recent years have seen a shift from this bipolar approach to secondary education in the US towards a focus on college and career-readiness in both college-preparatory programs and career and technical education. Where vocational training provided students with skills that put them on the track to a job right out of a high school, career and technical education provides a combination of classroom and real-world experience. As a result, students are afforded a variety of pathways after graduation, including further education such as post-secondary certificates and degree programs or direct career tracking in today’s economy, which requires a strong background that recognizes that academic subjects like math and English are just as important as the technical skills necessary for a job.

The shift in the way education pathways are viewed aligns to the shift in the discourse among education experts. In recognition of Career and Technical Education month, marked each February, the US Department of Education held its annual summit on February 27. This year they chose to focus on the importance of career guidance, bringing together researchers and practitioners to discuss the current state of CTE and to look to the future. In his opening comments, Michael Wooten, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education emphasized that career and technical education can very much work hand-in-hand with liberal arts studies. This sentiment was echoed by teachers and administrators in attendance. There was a general consensus in the room that students and parents need to understand the differences between today’s career and technical education and vocational training programs of years past – that the stigma associated with vocational training has cast an unfair shadow over career and technical education programs. This is the just first hurdle to overcome.

As we look towards the future, it’s important to prepare students today for jobs and careers decades into the future, which is no small task! One critical change already on the rise is the way we approach jobs and careers. No longer are employees joining an organization or company and staying until retirement. Workers are increasingly looking towards project-based opportunities, giving rise to the new buzzword “gig economy.” As a result, employers are now buying outcomes rather than time. Research presented by Kelly Educational Staffing draws connections between birth of the gig economy and highly educated or skilled labor. The shift from vocational training to career and technical education is especially critical to developing the transferable skills necessary to operate in this new work model.

Changes in education and the economy are tied to changes in technology. As more and more jobs are becoming automated, the key is to identify which uniquely human skills will be required to make automation function. Soft skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, characteristics highlighted in the IB Learner Profile, are more crucial than ever. Workers in the future will likely be choosing between extremely skilled work that cannot be automated and work requiring uniquely human skills to complement artificial intelligence.

If you would like to  learn more about how soft skills and career and technical education fit into an IB education or are interested in speaking with someone about the IB Diploma and Career-related Programmes, please contact us.


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