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Rebuilding CTE’s Post-Pandemic Future on Equity

By Rosario Torres, Program Officer, Career Readiness

April 02, 2021

As every corner of the postsecondary landscape reassesses its path forward after the COVID-19 pandemic, the career and technical education (CTE) field has an opportunity to solidify its place at the center of our economic and educational recovery. But to become a sturdy bridge to economic and social mobility for the millions of workers re-entering a post-pandemic workforce, CTE must rebuild itself with equity as its foundation.

What has become glaringly obvious over the past year is that there is no going back to normal once the pandemic subsides. As of February 2021, the United States had only recovered 55% of the 22 million jobs lost during the peak of the COVID-19 recession and economists say many jobs are not coming back. New jobs and skills will be needed to confront the next challenges that are already at our doorstep: rebuilding the country after economic upheaval, addressing racial injustice and climate change, preventing the next pandemic, and recovering from the educational losses students have experienced in the past year.

CTE -- which trains and prepares students for careers in manufacturing, green jobs, information technology, and healthcare, among other critical sectors -- has the potential to drive the next era of economic growth. Research has shown that CTE programs have the potential to provide a ladder to the middle class, but, so far, not everyone has benefited. CTE has a history of vocational tracking that has left people of color and women out of better paying fields; for instance, men are much more likely than women to be in STEM CTE programs, while a new report from grantee partner Urban Institute found that Black and Latinx students are disproportionately represented in pathways, such as consumer sciences, that lead to lower earnings.

As critical as CTE is and has been to preparing workers for ever-evolving workforce needs, this history of racial and gender inequity have made it difficult for the field as a whole to live up to its promise. The pandemic has presented an opportunity for the entire field to forge a new path. Making the road easier to navigate, new Perkins V guidelines that require CTE programs to collect disaggregated data by race/ethnicity, gender, and other demographic characteristics will ensure CTE is heading in the right direction with equity in focus.

The road ahead is also partially paved. A recent MDRC scan of community college CTE programs revealed promising practices around promoting diverse enrollment and recruitment to reduce equity gaps, but more can be done to understand what services can best support student persistence and completion in CTE programs.

Philanthropy can serve as a valuable partner in filling some of these holes. Over the last six years, ECMC Foundation has invested in pilot projects that can seed widespread, equitable innovation in the field. Below are a few examples of ECMC Foundation-funded projects focused on closing equity gaps for students who have been historically underrepresented in CTE programs.

  • American Indian College Fund (College Fund) is developing cohesive and coordinated career pathways across the North Dakota tribal college and universities to meet workforce needs in high-demand healthcare occupations, such as nursing. The initiative will not only increase the capacity of the North Dakota Association of Tribal Colleges to provide healthcare pathways for students, but will also meet tribal and state workforce demands and lower persistently high unemployment rates among Native peoples.
  • Northland Workforce Training Center (NWTC) is developing a Mechanical Engineering Technology associate degree program based on an earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship model. In addition to breaking down barriers faced by adults accessing and completing postsecondary education, the program aims to dramatically shift the placement of women and students of color in advanced manufacturing and energy careers in Western New York.
  • Northern New Mexico College (NNMC) is developing a self-sustaining Plumbing and Pipefitters Center of Excellence (PPCoE) that will generate a pipeline of skilled labor to fill the employment needs of regional employers. NNMC’s program is developed in collaboration with unions and employers to create a program that offers positive outcomes for students and the local workforce. This model for potential higher education/union partnerships could be applied nationwide, particularly in areas where career readiness initiatives can serve as economic development engines in underserved rural communities.
  • National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) is working with 10 state postsecondary agencies and their staff to offer meaningful, focused, and effective technical assistance in conducting and implementing their comprehensive local needs assessments, which requires local education agencies to report on their progress toward improving access and equity every two years. The goal is to identify and close gaps in the participation, performance, retention, and completion of students based on gender, race and ethnicity.
  • Operation Restoration (OR) is launching a six-month Lab Assistant Program for students at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women through Delgado Community College. The program aims to meet the immediate local workforce needs for qualified lab personnel and prepare incarcerated women for gainful employment upon release, providing hiring support and post-release re-entry supports that aim to break down real and perceived barriers associated with felony convictions.

We are also making a significant investment in improving online CTE programs to address the digital divide and achievement gaps facing students of color, especially in online programs. Along with a changing job market, postsecondary education may look different in the future than it did pre-pandemic, with elements of distance learning and flexible learning models likely here to stay. Led by partners at the Urban Institute and in collaboration with a coalition of five national partners, the CTE CoLab will support community and technical colleges in ensuring that these shifts do not leave students of color and those from low-income backgrounds behind. College programs selected for the college community of practice will receive $30,000 and technical assistance during the two-year engagement, with the goal of implementing strategies and developing resources to promote racial and ethnic equity in online postsecondary CTE programs. Through this work, the CTE CoLab will develop resources to support the field and collaborate with colleges in making their CTE programming more inclusive and accessible.

Ultimately, CTE leaders who shape the direction of the field need to be as committed to equity as policymakers and the philanthropic community. That’s why ECMC Foundation has expanded its forward-looking CTE Leadership Collaborative to foster collaboration and sharing across different disciplines of CTE, including practitioners, researchers, journalists, data analysts, business and industry professionals, and state CTE leaders. By learning from and working with each other, ECMC Foundation Fellows are better equipped to champion and apply equity-minded practices back in their own respective disciplines and networks. Speaking to a convening of nearly 100 Fellows in December 2020, Eloy Oakley, Chancellor of the California Community College System, put it succinctly: “Economic and social mobility should be our driving factor, our key accountability piece.”

A vision centered on equity is the most powerful tool available to CTE leaders as they build a new path forward.

Learn more about ECMC Foundation’s Career Readiness portfolio and current funding priorities. Have an innovative idea that can shape the future of CTE? Submit an LOI.

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