Policy ImpactsNational

Career and Technical Education: A National Movement towards a 21st Century Workforce

September 4, 2019

As student loan debt continues to weigh on the minds of many Millennials, a renewed focus by lawmakers in Federal and state governments on career and technical education (CTE) is providing new opportunities for the many who are performing the cost benefit analysis of a four-year college degree. In recent years the importance of providing new avenues of job training have come to the forefront as lawmakers look to build a qualified workforce that isn’t saddled with crippling debt.

Over the last decade there has been a nationwide boom in the popularity of technical education. CTE programs are supported as some of the most effective ways to ensure that workers are prepared for the demands of the 21st century economy. Through a combination of brevity and affordability, community colleges and vocational schools are quickly becoming an attractive alternative for those looking for a postsecondary degree. Advocates for CTE are making their case for more support by pointing to the fact that currently in the US 53% of jobs are middle-skill jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a traditional college degree. With the demand for CTE programs on the rise, there has been a swell in bipartisan support for legislation that will improve access to community and vocational colleges.

In June of this year Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-LA-2) and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH-16) introduced legislation in the House of Representatives aimed at extending Federal Pell Grants to those seeking a short term job training degree. The bill, H.R. 3497, also known as the JOBS ACT, would extend Pell Grant assistance to those who meet the financial aid requirements and are looking for jobs that are high-skill, high-wage, and in demand. Stipulations around Pell Grant aid normally require that students be enrolled in a program that takes at least 600 hours to complete. This means that most financial aid goes to students seeking a four-year degree. The JOBS Act seeks to expand CTE enrollment by allowing aid to be given to students whose desired degree takes between 150 and 600 hours, and lasts between 8–15 weeks. The bill has a bipartisan Senate companion: S.893.

As the federal government has begun to push for greater assistance for technical programs, many states have already taken the lead on pushing through their own workforce development initiatives. The Tennessee Promise scholarship is one such program that has been offering tuition free community college to students since 2014. From the time of its inception Tennessee Promise has significantly increased the number of high school graduates who attend college every year in the state, and the inaugural class of beneficiaries showed drastically improved graduation and degree attainment numbers, mirroring the success of Promise programs elsewhere.

Another policy solution that has been adopted by multiple states including Washington and Massachusetts is a lifelong learning training account (LLTA). The training accounts allow for employees, with the support of their employers, to establish education accounts that can be used to pay for technical education or skills training. These programs operate on the premise that workers will invest in their own education out of a desire to move into better paying positions, and that employers will invest in their employee’s accounts out of a need for high skilled, well trained labor. These accounts are typically similar to health savings accounts (HSAs) in structure and are supported by state governments through the establishment of the necessary infrastructure and incentives for both employees and employers to invest. LLTAs are receiving a focus on the Federal level now as well. In the 116th congress, both H.R. 898 and H.R. 4017 are targeted toward improving contribution limits and tax benefits for learning accounts.

The benefits of investing in career and technical education cannot be overstated. With half of all STEM jobs calling for workers with less than a bachelor’s degree, and health care occupations projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, technical education has never been more important. Not only do these degrees help maintain a job ready workforce, they also cut down on the amount of student debt taken on by students who are looking for a short term degree and those looking to transfer to a four-year institution.

The pattern of policy development at the state and federal level should encourage observers. The benefits of investing in technical education are conspicuous and essential to our evolving economy. It’s time to invest in CTE and create a workforce for the 21st century.

By Harrison Frye

Rep. Sara Jacobs


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