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#AskExcelinEd: How can Fordham’s new report help states improve the alignment of CTE programs?

• Melissa Canney


Earlier this month, the Fordham Institute released How Aligned is Career and Technical Education to Local Labor Markets? This new report analyzes how well the career and technical education (CTE) courses students take align with national and local labor market demand.

Many of the report’s findings and takeaways support ExcelinEd’s work in the CTE space—specifically that CTE program alignment is an issue, but it is something that states can take steps to improve.

Major Findings

Overall, the authors find that there is much work to be done in terms of alignment.

  1. While half of all U.S. jobs are in the Business Management & Administration, Hospitality & Tourism, Marketing and Manufacturing sectors, the associated career clusters account for only a quarter of CTE course enrollment and a fifth of CTE concentrations. (Students who concentrate in CTE complete two or more courses in a CTE program, depending on the state’s definition.) This mismatch suggests that there are many students across the country who are spending valuable high school electives in courses and programs that leave them with knowledge and skills that aren’t in demand—or put bluntly—lead to dead ends.
  2. There is a local association between the number of jobs in a given field and student enrollment in aligned CTE courses, but these patterns weaken for CTE concentrators. This shows that there is some local alignment occurring in terms of the CTE courses and programs available, but students are less likely to progress through programs aligned with in-demand occupations to reach concentrator status.
  3. There is a decrease in student CTE participation when local wages in the associated field increase. In other words, it seems that CTE programs are doing a better job of connecting students with lower-wage, in-demand local jobs, but may not be doing a great job of connecting students to high-skill, high-wage, in-demand local careers.

This report also provides an important analysis of CTE course-taking patterns by race and gender, noting significant differences in enrollment patterns across career clusters. It also offers an in-depth analysis of alignment in ten metropolitan areas, allowing readers to contextualize the local variations that make up these national trends.

This research adds a new lens through which policymakers, educators and employers can build upon to improve the alignment of their CTE programs.

Caveats and Considerations

When reviewing this report, it’s important to understand the following caveats and considerations related to both the supply side (student CTE participation) and demand side (labor market demand) data used in this analysis.

  1. Demand Does Not Consider Wage Earnings: This analysis evaluates demand-side alignment based solely on 2009-2012 labor market demand (the number of people employed in a specific occupation). It does not take into account whether the in-demand occupations pay wages that can support a family. Without considering wages, states and districts run the risk of preparing students for low-wage jobs with limited advancement potential.
  2. Defining Supply at the Career Cluster Level: This analysis evaluates supply-side alignment at the career cluster level, rather than by CTE course or program of study. This approach may mask the actual alignment of students’ CTE experiences due to the wide variation of programs within each career cluster. For example, a state or region may reflect high demand for Food Science workers (higher wage) but low demand for Floral Design workers (lower wage), both of which are associated with the Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources (AFNR) career cluster.
  3. Data Lag: This analysis uses data from 2009-2012, which is relatively old (though it may be the most current timeframe available for all incorporated datasets). The labor market has changed significantly over the past 7-10 years, and many states and districts have made significant changes to their CTE program offerings during that time.
  4. Quality and Student Outcomes: This analysis only considers alignment between students’ CTE experiences and current labor market demand. It does not incorporate data to evaluate the quality of students’ CTE experiences, nor does it include data on student outcomes such as postsecondary completion, credential attainment, employment and wage earnings. While the study did find some evidence of labor market alignment, there is no guarantee that the aligned programs are high-quality and lead to improved student outcomes.

Despite these limitations, this research is a significant contribution to understanding the alignment between CTE course participation and local employment. The research leverages student and employment data in a new way that is long overdue. Most importantly, it is a jumping-off point for conversations to understand and improve CTE program alignment, quality and student outcomes that should include policymakers, educators, employers and families.

As we’ve outlined in our CTE playbook series, these conversations must be approached holistically to ensure that there is not only alignment between CTE programs and labor market demand, but that aligned programs are high-quality and lead all students to successful high-wage, high-skill, in-demand careers as measured by student outcomes (in addition to participation).

How Can Your State Align CTE Programs with Industry Needs?

ExcelinEd’s CTE playbook series outlines steps states can take to ensure their CTE programs lead students to successful career outcomes. Explore the complete series or take a look at some of highlights in the blog post #AskExcelinEd: How Can Your State Align CTE Programs with Industry Needs?

As always, please let us know if you have questions or if ExcelinEd can assist your state in developing or strengthening CTE programs for students.

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About the author

Melissa Canney

Melissa Canney is the Director of Innovation Policy at ExcelinEd. She previously served as the Executive Director of Divisional Operations and Communications in the Division of College, Career and Technical Education at the Tennessee Department of Education. Melissa’s experience in Tennessee included policy analysis and implementation, communication strategy development, grant management and data analysis related to college and career readiness. A Vermont native, Melissa earned a B.A in Sociology from Stanford University and an M.P.P. in Education from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her dog Moxie.