CTE: Critical to The Economy

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

There currently are millions of Americans out of work, which suggests that they should be able to apply and be hired for any of the millions of unfilled job openings. That suggestion would be wrong, however, not because there aren’t jobs, though, and not because there aren’t willing workers. Instead, America’s current employment crisis is driven by the fact that there aren’t enough qualified workers to fill jobs that require specified skills and abilities. Many of today’s job candidates lack middle skills. 

The lack of trained workers for middle-skill jobs was a significant concern before the Covid-19 pandemic, and it has become an even more critical concern as that crisis is passing. Accordingly, many state governments are developing their ‘Career and Technical Education’ (CTE) resources, which are typically training facilities that certify learners have gained the proper ‘middle level’ skills and experience to find work in their chosen occupation. In California, the State’s network of community colleges is tapped as its workforce development engine, and the government is investing billions to help them provide this critical middle-skills training for all of its industrial sectors.


Jobs + Workers (Does Not Always) = Employment

‘Middle skilled jobs’ are those that require more training than is available in high school but less advanced education than is necessary for a four-year university degree. Jobs that require ‘middle skills’ abound in virtually all industries, including human services, hospitality and tourism, all forms of trades (plumbers, electricians, etc.), STEM industries (science, technology, engineering, and math), and healthcare, to name just a few. Yet, despite the huge demand for workers across all these industries, jobs remain open because people haven’t pursued these occupations.

In 2015, for example, even with 53% of all jobs available in the U.S. labor market, only 43% of the country’s workers had training in those fields.

Despite a recent surge in U.S. manufacturing that reached a 37-year high, more than half a million jobs in the sector remain unfilled. There aren’t enough trained tradespeople such as welders and machinists to filled the jobs that are so critically needed to maintain the country’s manufacturing output.

In 2019, a New York Times article noted that by the end of 2021, there would be up to 3.5 million open and unfilled cybersecurity jobs. Not only does that number represent a missed employment opportunity for millions of wanna-be cybersecurity experts, but it also suggests a significant risk of cybercrime due to a lack of appropriate oversight and monitoring of global cyber resources.

The lack of a well-trained labor force is a decided handicap for the country. Not only are critical services and products now in short supply, but the existing workforce producing them is wearing out under the added burden. To remediate the problem, many companies raise pay and benefit values to attract more employees and lower their hiring standard to accept anyone who walks in the door, even when their skill-set isn’t up to par.

The economic costs are enormous, too. In 2018, national construction costs rose over 5% due to short product supply and not enough workers to produce new goods. The American heavy equipment sector loses more than $2.4 billion each year for lack of qualified workers to produce and manage its goods. The global manufacturing sector expects to lose over $600 billion by 2030 for lack of workers.


CTE: Skills for Jobs

California is investing heavily in its Career and Technical Education programs to build its middle-skilled workforce. Its community colleges are now ground-zero for these essential training programs. Organized into 15 ‘Career Pathways,’ the CTE programs offer training in fundamental industrial sectors, all of which exist in all areas of the State and all of which are vitally important to the State’s economy. Each pathway provides a variety of coursework and training options for the myriad of jobs available within the scope of its specified industry, so there’s likely to be some form of occupation within that industry for anyone who wants to participate in it. Many courses can also be used as foundations for further education, and obtaining additional credentials for related occupations can build a ‘job’ into a life-long, well-paid career.

To ensure a consistent talent pool across the State, California also mandates that its schools follow CTE model curriculum standards. Industry and education experts designed these standards:

as guides for students looking for work that meets their interests;

for schools to use when developing programs and curricula, and

for businesses to use in designing their production and development processes.

When all three industry ‘participants’ – learners, schools, and companies – engage in common training activities with common expectations, then the effort of pursuing that training can meet the needs of all of them.

“Standards” Breakdown

The standards themselves are a framework of three separate but related concepts, each of which delivers a different element of the ‘occupational training’ format. Programs designed to be part of a Career Pathway must follow these standards:

      1. The first standard element ensures students understand the fundamental principles of the work they’re planning to perform. This standard uses a “Beyond Knowledge Construct” that encompasses the factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive aspects of the work they are training to do.
      2. The second standard element, the “Standards for Career Ready Practice,” articulates those fundamental employee habits and behaviors that lead to job and career success, including behaving ethically and developing effective communication skills, as examples.
      3. The third standard element, the 11 ‘anchor’ standards, connects the Career Ready Practices to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Training that complies with these standards provides the education that workers need to find jobs in their field and jobs in the communities they live in, both in California and across the country. Forty-one states, four territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have all adopted these standards as the standard they expect their workers to achieve.

In many cases, any individual CTE program can be a stand-alone training for a specific job, a part of a more extensive CTE sequence, or integrated as an element in preparation for additional educational goals.


The receding pandemic leaves behind millions of unemployed workers, many of whom don’t have the skills needed to engage in the rebuilding economy. The CTE programs offered by California’s community colleges offer the training they’ll need to qualify for those jobs and to pursue virtually any career that attracts their attention.


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