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Celebrating Black History Month and the Critical Importance of CTE

February 24, 2022

Dear ECMC Foundation community,

In 1949, my father graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, cum laude, with a degree in mathematics and hopes of working in the aerospace industry. Unfortunately, those kinds of opportunities did not await African American graduates in those days. He set his original aspirations aside and found a local school district who would hire him as math teacher. Dad built a vibrant, rewarding career, but he never was able to work in aerospace.

When career goals are squashed at the outset, many graduates find themselves in the same situation my father did: life pushes you onto a different pathway that never intersects with your dream job. We’ve made some progress in terms of what opportunities are available to an African American honors graduate with a STEM degree, but the world has yet to open up equitably for individuals with other types of credentials.

Our work at ECMC Foundation across both baccalaureate and sub-baccalaureate programs endeavors to show young people of color the many opportunities out there — and to ensure that they have the knowledge, resources, and credentials to access them. It’s also worth saying — and proving — that success does not necessarily require the pursuit of a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Those tracks don’t make sense for everyone or every career trajectory, and yet they often crowd out other options when it comes to higher education considerations.

That’s why a significant portion of ECMC Foundation’s grantmaking has been focused on elevating career and technical education (CTE) and its value as an education pathway into a promising future. February is CTE Month as well as Black History Month, which also makes this a great time to emphasize the importance of equity-driven CTE — and to acknowledge the complicated history many African Americans have with technical education programs.

Previously known as vocational or industrial education, CTE was throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries subject to the “Great Debate,” a question of whether it was a pathway to prosperity or a diversion from the classic liberal arts education many white people enjoyed. Today, as I see it, the answer to that question need not be either/or — rather, we want to consider how best to connect every student with the access, support and tools they need to earn the right credentials for the career they want to realize. This philosophy is evident in our latest grant commitments just approved last month and has been part of our longstanding commitment to equity.

My recent Forbes column discusses how equity-driven CTE can be a powerful missing link between higher education offerings and employer needs, a necessary alignment for national economic recovery as well as for preparing our workforce for jobs of the future. Access to quality CTE and the good jobs it leads to is also a matter of economic security and mobility for many people who have historically been excluded from such pathways. Yet these programs have long steered people of color and women of all races — the ones who might benefit most from CTE — toward lower-earning pathways, costing them tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in lifetime earnings and undermining CTE’s transformative potential.

Edison International (whose Board of Directors I am honored to begin chairing in May) is a great example of how a thoughtful partnership around CTE opportunities can enhance equity and support individuals into strong careers. The company launched a scholarship program for Los Angeles Trade Technical College students aimed at increasing Black representation among lineworkers. The program demonstrates how a private company is working inwardly and affirmatively to address a pervasive problem that challenges many industries. Further, it shows how a community college is aligning its CTE programming and external partnerships with both students’ and employers’ needs.

People coming out of higher education in any form need marketable skills that translate into good jobs. For some, a four-year degree or liberal arts education is the right choice; for others, different pathways may be more useful.

As we celebrate both CTE and Black history this month, let’s also celebrate the potential of their future intersections — and consider the myriad ways that postsecondary education can drive equitable economic recovery for all.

Sincerely,

Peter J. Taylor

President, ECMC Foundation


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