SALT LAKE CITY — Work boots. Hooded sweatshirt underneath a Carhartt jacket. Tool belt. Truck.
That's the perception for many of a career after trade school.
Nathan Meyer thought so, too. Although he’d taken classes in high school for CPR and EMT training at Davis Technical College, the local "trade school," he didn’t consider it an option for his higher education route.
Instead, he took the prescribed path to achieve his goal of earning a doctorate in botany — enrolling at Weber State University.
At the midpoint of his college career in 2016, however, a series of unexpected setbacks in his family required Meyer to pivot.
His wife went into early labor, and doctors discovered four tumors in her brain. The situation compounded — problematic medical diagnoses for the baby and continued seizures for his wife, even after she’d finished chemotherapy and radiation.
Meyer needed a job, and thought about dropping out of college. But first he went to the academic counseling office at Weber State, where he met a counselor who talked through various options.
One of those options was just down the road at Davis Tech, where Meyer, 37, is today, studying information technology while working full time in that same field to support his family.
Meyer is among the nearly 4 million students in the U.S. currently enrolled in some form of postsecondary career and technical education, or CTE, a training system of hands-on programs and industry certifications. Its focus is local programs that lead to jobs in considerably less time than the four years of a traditional university.
Recent realities of overwhelming student debt and college admission scandals have called into question the time and expense required of a traditional college education.
Meanwhile, candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination are pitching plans to fix America’s higher ed crisis, and universities are attempting to present themselves as relevant and worth the price tag.
Add to this projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that occupations requiring an associate degree will grow faster than those requiring a bachelor’s degree.
Meyer said giving up his plans for a traditional education in the hard sciences wasn’t easy.
“It took me a long time to be emotionally OK with my decision,” says Meyer. “But, traditional college wasn’t equipped to provide me with what I needed (considering) my circumstances.”
Then and now
Technical college, trade school, vocational education, career education — all are iterations of the same thing: formal preparation for students to work.
The role dates back centuries. Apprenticeships in trades and crafts were imported from Europe and were part of early America. The training became more formalized in the early 1800s as schools began to train students for specific jobs and surged during World Wars I and II, as men and women were needed for technical skills related to national defense.
Today, career and technical education isn’t the wood-shaving shop class of many parents’ experiences. It is instead a robust network of programs for students as early as junior high, with dual enrollment available for high school students, as well as certificate, credential and training programs for post-graduate and returning students.
“Some are using (CTE) as one step toward a (four-year) degree, and some, like single moms, are coming in and don’t know where to land,” says Melanie Hall, director of marketing at Davis Tech, a nearly 6,000 student campus spread across 3 buildings and two blocks in suburban Kaysville, Utah, 20 miles north of Salt Lake City.
This reality of so many students needing so many things means career education programs today have to provide nontraditional options and non-traditional pathways.
Career education programs offer possibilities like instantaneous enrollment and “stackable” courses — earned credit for skill training, education and workplace learning that "stacks" toward associate degrees — in everything from cosmetology to software development to welding.
Career and technical education distinguishes itself from traditional higher ed, however, by not focusing on courses.
In fact, it isn’t easy to find course lists on CTE program websites — if one is findable at all. Instead, job sectors are displayed on the home page along with language like “critical,” “in-demand areas,” “workforce” and “skills gap.”
Career education’s focus is on “pathways” — direct means to the ends students want: a job, a certificate or a smooth transfer to a four-year college.
Trade school stigma
Technical training wasn’t created with student needs in mind, however. It was created to meet job necessity.
By the early 20th century, technical training was used as a system to funnel kids from lower-income families into jobs that filled some of America’s employment needs. Over time, this turned into a more standardized practice of specifying "tracks" for students of certain races and classes, a procedure that’s created the cultural mindset about career and technical education still predominant today.
“(A)n underlying function of vocational education has been to segregate poor and minority students into occupational training programs in order to preserve the academic curriculum for middle- and upper-class students,” said Jeanne Oakes, author of Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, in an American Radio Works documentary.
This system-created stigma of race and class has dogged trade schools for decades and keeps many from considering career education as a viable postsecondary option.
A recent survey conducted by Big Rentz, the largest machine rental network in the U.S., found only 11 percent of people ages 18-24 believe a trade school-related education gives one access to a high paying job, while nearly 50 percent find no advantage for a trade school over college.
Additionally, 1 in 5 believed there was a $30,000 gap between a bachelor’s degree holder’s earnings and earnings with a trade school certification.
Hall at Davis Tech says those opinions aren't held by just college-age students. “The challenge is in the minds of the parents," she said. "It’s hard for them to get around the idea of (a nontraditional educational path).”
Along with concerns surrounding income potential and stereotypes about who can benefit from technical education, career education is affected by America's problematic way of connecting training and work.
Currently, there is no national organization helping determine links between education and vocations, writes James R. Stone III, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at Southern Regional Education Board.
Stone suggests because of this lacking structure, American society has — by default — used college as the path for youth to move into the labor market after high school. This has led employers to assume “a college degree is the signal on an applicant’s resume of skill or proper training.”
However, the college diploma matters to more than just employers, and this is an aspect of the stigma career education programs nationwide are working to address.
“Part of what we’re doing is framing (CTE) as an option other than college and breaking the pattern of defaulting to a four-year degree,” says Kate Blosveren Kreamer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE, an association for state directors of career technical education. “We’re ensuring that individuals have the training they need for the career of their choice while keeping doors open at the secondary level.”
Career technical education is doing this by offering students a chance to quickly earn a meaningful credential that will allow them to work now and continue onto college — if and whenever they choose to continue.
This framing is working. In 2015, for example, U.S. educational institutions awarded over 80,000 more one-year certificates and associate sub-baccalaurate degrees than bachelor's degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Additionally, the number of students seeking additional certificates or degrees after having already earned one increased from 28 percent in 2003 to 34 percent in 2012, the center's data shows.
According to a 2018 study, nearly half of the 4.6 million jobs in the U.S. manufacturing industry currently go unfilled, and that number is estimated to reach 2.4 million positions through 2028.
These numbers, coupled with the current political climate of tariffs and immigration restrictions, result in labor market needs that technical training can fill.
As early as junior high, students are encouraged to consider technical education as a path to a career or further education, says Kreamer.
The Delaware Pathways home page, for example, lists 14 areas in which the state has employment needs. Its programs offer students the opportunity to “try on” a job with the mentoring of industry leaders.
The State of Oregon employment department lists private health care and construction as the industries offering the state’s largest job growth through 2027.
And the San Diego Workforce Partnership was created to find and train adults and young adults in the “in-demand occupations and high-growth industries” in San Diego County.
CTE programs emphasize their cost effectiveness. A year of in-state tuition at the University of Georgia, for example, is around $12,000, while in-state tuition at neighboring Athens Technical College is around $2,800.
Joining higher and technical education
In an op-ed piece for Inside Higher Ed, Gregory Seaton, associate director of Jobs for the Future, says that connecting higher and technical education is foundational to the way universities need to change in America.
“Part of the historical misunderstanding over technical and liberal arts education is that they don’t mix. That is an artificial barrier that will become even more artificial as the nature of work evolves. Reading, writing and math will remain important, but at the same time, other skills like problem solving, communication, collaboration and emotional intelligence will become more crucial," Seaton said.
Although he deviated from his original plans, Meyer says he enjoys working in information technology and studying it.
“It wasn’t a decision I made overnight. I’d talk to a lot of people … asking a lot of questions about their paths, their jobs, even information tech. But this was why I was going to school in the first place — to get a job I wanted,” Meyer said.