Commentary: Attracting students to tech ed

Rhonda Tracy

Many one-year certificate and two-year associate degree programs offered in the community colleges lead to the high-wage, high demand technical jobs that are needed for manufacturing and those induced and indirect industries that support manufacturing. Yet students are not selecting technical pathways at the level that Kentucky needs.

Informal observations and input from students indicate that many students and families still view technical occupations as dark, dirty and dangerous jobs that involve manual labor. Indeed, educators often equate shorter-term education in technical careers as a “less-than” career option, with longer programs educating the “head” while shorter programs educate the “hands.”

In fact, educators frequently advise students to aim for the lengthier preparation that educate the “head” for white-collar jobs and only if there is a question about ability will students be advised to train their “hands” for blue collar jobs. This is an outdated notion with a premise that is no longer supported in the workforce as the lines between white- and blue-collar jobs have blurred.

The challenge — and opportunity — is to define what is meant by a technical career. Within the community college sector, technical programs include applied programs in manufacturing, business, health care, logistics and construction. Interestingly, these are the very sectors that Kentucky — and other states — seek employees to move the economy forward. We must present these careers to students early on as careers of choice, careers of opportunity and careers of the future.

An ongoing journey 

If educators work together to prepare students for these jobs, we will communicate that work preparation is a continuum that represents a multi-faceted journey we connect rather than separate in terms of the pathways to get there. For those students choosing a pathway into the manufacturing sector, education may include knowledge of equipment, processes, safety, operations, coupled with the ability to think critically. Students choosing the health care sector develop competencies in patient care, pharmacology, physiology and reasoning.

Higher education is a journey intended to prepare students for the workforce. Pathways have levels; journeys have destinations. If our destination is a job that supports a state’s economy, our pathway may take many forms — all good and all needed. Quite frankly, we are all preparing for the workforce and we develop academic and technical skills to get there. Just because the preparation pathway for a job is shorter in terms of education should not be equated to the worth and value of the job.

How then can we promote pathways that more directly link to technical, high-wage, high-demand manufacturing jobs as a viable alternative to lengthier, perhaps more-costly and less-lucrative pathways? Here are some strategies that will prepare graduates for those workforce needs:

  • Ensure students have information about technical jobs. Many students, particularly first-generation college-going students, are not realistic or — worse yet — not informed about jobs needed for the future, jobs that will promote a healthy economic climate and pay high dividends for its citizenry. Their career choices often come from television, relatives, friends, Internet games (yes!), sports and career inventories taken at a young age. Schools and colleges need to provide an eye to the future with specific job opportunities that match students’ interests and goals that are targeted and intrusive. For example, are high school guidance counselors pointing students to high-demand, high-wage jobs in the manufacturing sector? At the college-entrance level, if more than 10 percent of the entering class selects general education as a major, it is time to evaluate career advisement for entering students. Technical program options must be front and center.
  • Look for opportunities to connect traditional programs to technical content and majors. While a natural and symbiotic relationship exists between degree major codes offered in college and U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) occupation group codes, it would be helpful to regularly review college majors and degrees in relationship to how they meet the projected short- and long-term employment market. While this is not an exact science, it may reveal that some popular majors do not have projected 10-year job growth. For example, criminal justice may be a popular major as a result of the popular NCIS television show, however, growth through 2022 is projected to be very modest. What if this program included a minor in a technical area such as industrial and construction site security? Another popular major is business management, but this occupation also shows modest growth through 2022. What if this program included a technical component of logistics and transportation, both high-growth areas?
  • DOL indicates that the largest growth areas are health care practitioners and technical occupations, health care support occupations, personal care and service occupations and construction and extraction occupations. Many jobs within these sectors do not require four-year degrees and require competencies and skills that fit into technical or applied certificate programs or associate degrees. Yet it may be attractive to students to show them how they can start with technical content and layer on additional competencies for additional degree levels if needed in the future. Occupations can be viewed in terms of career ladders and pathways that address different levels and expectations within the occupation that could then convert or connect to certificate, associate, baccalaureate and other degrees.
  • Walk backward into the curriculum for technical programs. If the curriculum process starts from the occupations at their roots and is “walked back” into the courses, the result will be students ready for jobs. When the curriculum for degree programs is developed by faculty, it is done with great thought, abundant research and adherence to standards set by the particular discipline. Courses are sequenced; the end product is a program of study that usually includes courses in general education, courses in the discipline and supportive courses that enhance the discipline. There may also be elective courses of interest that round out the degree requirements. If we take the intended occupational goals and learn from the particular sector or industry experts what is needed on the job, the curriculum becomes relevant, ready and responsive. This should be true for technical programs as well as any preparation program that leads to a job.
  • Collaborate but go a step further — form coalitions. Recruiting students into technical programs is not just the responsibility of college recruiters. It needs to be a concerted effort of established coalitions of interested and engaged entities. The partners in bringing students to the technical programs should be career and technical school staff, industry leaders, alumni, chambers of commerce, economic development councils and workforce investment boards. It is important that members of the coalition — many of whom have completed traditional degree programs — reinforce that all educational programs lead to the workforce and technical programs are just a part of a whole. A Technical Program Recruitment Coalition could go a long way.
  • Save money to make money. Most technical programs of study are located in the state’s community and technical colleges and thus the tuition is lower. Couple the lower tuition with the shorter time frames to degree completion, add increased market demands with job availability, and the result is a win-win for students. Students will save on tuition, progress to the workforce more quickly and earn more money in high-wage jobs. We must find ways to attract students — good students — to these professions. The selection of technical programs becomes an important lesson in financial literacy for students who could graduate with less debt.
  • Lastly, what is in a name? The word “technical” has an impact on career choices. For some reason, the words “workforce” or “technical,” when coupled with education, seems to imply that other professions don’t include technical training or prepare students for the workforce. As society becomes more technological, as we become more attuned to workforce needs and as the lines blur for what were previously perceived as lower paying technical jobs, we may need a new word, a new term for these jobs of the future. Students, parents, counselors and the community often have a different understanding of technical preparation and workforce training and perceptions keep them from pursuing these vital careers. Change can be slow and in time these careers will emerge and their importance will be celebrated. But in the meantime we may need to find a term that is attractive to more students.

In summary, it is important to ensure that higher education contributes to the economic development of Kentucky and other states by producing graduates for available occupations. It will need to develop coalitions, responsive curriculum and creative communications to get the job done.

About the Author

Rhonda Tracy

Rhonda Tracy is chancellor of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.