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Ads Spell Out What Career and Technical Education Really Is — and Who It’s For

By Scott Carlson

Given the emphasis that the public puts on getting a job after college graduation, you’d think that something called “career and technical education” would light up the interest of prospective students and parents everywhere. While the career outcomes for a major in gender studies, sociology, or even English or history might seem uncertain, there’s little doubt about what a student in high-demand fields like health sciences, design and construction, hospitality, or manufacturing might do after walking across the stage with a diploma.

But career and technical education — often known by education insiders and policy makers as “CTE” — has an image problem. For starters, many people aren’t sure what it is. And for those students and parents who do have some sense of what CTE means, the connotations aren’t necessarily appealing: It’s a path, some think, for dumb kids who aren’t cut out for college.

Now, the California Community Colleges system is taking on a $6-million public-relations effort to rebrand career and technical education, showing students and parents that CTE is not just preparation for low-paying jobs or geeky, computer-oriented gigs, but a path that includes a range of well-paid, collaborative, hands-on fields. A lack of knowledge about the meaning of CTE was a major barrier to attracting and enrolling more students, says Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications and marketing for the California Community Colleges system. The Public Policy Institute of California predicts that by 2025 the state may have a shortage of 1.5 million workers with “some college.” (By comparison, that same year the state might have a shortage of 1 million workers with four-year college degrees.)

The system is rolling out a series of television commercials this month with a propulsive drumbeat playing over images of students working in immaculate laboratories, brightly lit clothing-design studios, pastry kitchens, and auto-repair shops. In some versions of the commercials, a voice-over emphasizes unexpected fields in CTE: global trade and logistics, advanced manufacturing, and water and environmental science. In others, slogans in big yellow fonts pop up over the images: “Less Waiting, More Working” and “Less Debt, More Doing.”

In the final moments of the ads, there’s no mention of “career and technical education.” Here, it’s simplified to a term that the community-college system believes is easier to understand: “career education.”

The system’s research showed that only 16 percent of the colleges’ current students were familiar with career and technical education, while 46 percent had either never heard of the term or didn’t know anything about it. Among prospective students, the numbers were even more dismal: More than 60 percent were unfamiliar with the term.

The colleges will still use “career and technical education” for internal communications, Mr. Feist says, but made a conscious decision to cut the word “technical” for the campaign, which was created by Ogilvy & Mather, the public-relations and advertising firm. Research found that students associated “technical” with computer- or engineering-oriented fields, conveying the sense that you have to be good at math or science to get into a CTE program.

“What if you want to learn culinary skills and open a Zagat-rated restaurant in L.A.?” Mr. Feist says. “You might not think of that as ‘career and technical education.’”

“What if you want to learn culinary skills and open a Zagat-rated restaurant in L.A.? You might not think of that as ‘career and technical education.’”

In opting for “career education,” however, the campaign edges close to another sullied term in higher ed: “career college,” the common name for for-profit institutions, some of which have been found to be expensive and predatory, with high loan-default rates among students. Mr. Feist says he and other California Community College officials trust that students understand the difference between the public mission of their institutions and the reputation of the for-profit colleges.

“I don’t think we’re too concerned about bumping up against what proprietary colleges call their offerings,” he says.

Students are fairly familiar with community-college programs that transfer into four-year degrees, Mr. Feist says, but the system wanted to emphasize CTE fields as something that can put students on a fast track to employment and lead to pathways for more education in the future.  

“The message is that these programs lead to good-paying jobs and can help with social mobility in the state of California,” he says. Not all of them are “what many people think of as sort of the dirt-beneath-the-fingernails, blue-collar job in funky working conditions.”

From Vocational Ed to CTE

In part, this perception is a hangover from the history of the term career and technical education, which is itself a rebranding of sorts. CTE emerged in the early 1990s as an update of the old vocational-educational system, says Kimberly A. Green, executive director of Advance CTE, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Vocational education had some problems. First, it was a perceived as a dead end. Vocational-ed programs were training students for specific tasks in specific jobs, and that training was becoming outdated in a labor market that was changing quickly, where jobs were shifting and merging, requiring more rigorous academics. Where vocational education focused on a half-dozen programs, career and technical education included 16 “career clusters” in areas as such as finance, transportation, agriculture, and hospitality.

In the 1980s, studies showed that low-income kids — and particularly those from minority backgrounds — were being pushed off the four-year college track and onto the vocational track, trained for blue-collar work.

“It was a broadening of the mission to really prepare the technician work force in every sector of the economy,” Ms. Green says.

But vocational education also had problems from a race and class standpoint, with practices that were blatantly discriminatory. In the 1980s, studies showed that low-income kids — and particularly those from minority backgrounds — were being pushed off the four-year college track and onto the vocational track, trained for blue-collar work. Those students were informally labeled “dumb” or, more charitably, “not college material.”

Career and technical education still struggles with that image today, even though the training in CTE courses can be academically rigorous. Eight years ago, officials in Nebraska studied perceptions about CTE and found that most state residents thought of career and technical education as a path to “dirty jobs.”

The state rebranded CTE as “Nebraska Career Education.” Rich Katt, state director for Nebraska Career Education, says the new image was almost immediately accepted by the public. In Nebraska schools, he says, curricula had in the past focused on core academics with career education as an add-on if school administrators could find room in the schedule. Today, schools are reorganizing their curricula around career education, and many students see no difference between career-ed and other courses.

‘Not Talking About the Dark Side’

Idaho in the past two years also found that career and technical education had an image problem. Caty Solace, spokeswoman for Idaho Career and Technical Education, says that parents and students saw CTE as something “less than college” and not even a good pathway to college.

“The interesting thing is that the statistics didn’t match up with that at all,” she says. Last year, for example, 63 percent of the students in CTE courses went on to college, compared with 47 percent of students who did not take CTE courses. (Those figures reflect other studies that show that CTE students are much more likely to graduate and enroll in college.)

Her office embarked on a major rebranding effort, visiting the Legislature, taking state officials to technical colleges and schools, and doing events and demonstrations of CTE programs for parents and students. State legislators responded by providing more money for college career-and-technical-education programs, adding 550 slots for students in those programs over the past two years.

“We’re not talking about the dark side anymore. We’re just talking about the enormous opportunities that are available for students.”

“We’re not talking about the dark side anymore,” Ms. Solace says. “We’re just talking about the enormous opportunities that are available for students, showing them the students that have gone before them who are successful, articulate, and already have jobs lined up, even though they are only through with their first year.”

Four-year college has had its own public-image problems in recent years, with high-profile stories about graduates having trouble finding jobs after the recession, and employers complaining that college students aren’t building relevant work skills. Ms. Green and her colleagues were at a presentation at a manufacturing conference recently where a research firm summed up the public’s skepticism about the value of a college degree in a message on a slide: “College doesn’t matter anymore.”

She says that CTE programs are better off if colleges and schools can articulate how their career programs transfer and lead to four-year degrees, since families still value that notion of college.

“There is this general bashing of college right now,” Ms. Green says, “and a lot of people have come to the CTE community and said, ‘Isn’t this great for you?’ It shouldn’t be an either/or. You know that all students need some kind of postsecondary experience — and likely ongoing, if they’re going to be successful.”

Scott Carlson is a senior writer who covers the cost and value of college. Email him at scott.carlson@chronicle.com.