- As New Jersey joins the list of states with skilled labor shortages, its 66 county-run vocational high schools use a combination of academics and work-based training to help prepare students for college and careers, according to The Hechinger Report.
- Because these institutions are county-run, they can develop closer relationships with local businesses, industries and community colleges and better respond to the hiring needs of employers — all of which help them offer more work-based learning opportunities, targeted instruction and jobs post-graduation.
- However, these schools are attracting nearly three times as many applicants as there are slots, The Hechinger Report noes, and many require admissions tests as part of their applications. As a result, critics say the process has promoted a sense of elitism by removing the best students from public schools and enrolling less diverse student bodies relative to local demographics.
The world is shifting rapidly, and as a result, some schools are struggling to adjust to the changes necessary to prepare students for the new world they will enter. Though basic academic skills are always necessary and beneficial in promoting success, the workplace of today and tomorrow requires that students have more specialized skills, especially as many blue-collar jobs are disappearing in the face of technology and automation. And some schools haven't yet caught up — they may be preparing students for jobs that no longer exist and failing to equip them for the job market that needs a different set of skills and capabilities.
Because of these factors, there has been a growing focus on career and technical education (CTE). Once thought of as the catch-all pathway for students who did not have the desire or ability to pursue college degrees, CTE is coming into its own as a training ground of choice for industries who have a high demand for skilled workers. As such, some of these high schools, such as the ones in New Jersey that are now requiring admissions tests, are starting to face charges of elitism that didn't exist in the past.
New Jersey’s unique approach to county-run CTE programs and the admissions process that comes with them have spurred disagreement on some of these diversity issues. And it's not the first time a selection system has been criticized: New York City's schools are said to be some of the most segregated in the country, and critics are calling out their admissions process as one that favors families with access to greater resources.
Though not everyone encourages a county-run approach to education, lawmakers and education leaders can be — and are — using similar approaches to promote CTE. Some are creating CTE diploma pathways for students that can be easier to obtain and that offer more targeted instruction to prepare students for the workplace. Others are encouraging middle school students to explore vocational options before choosing a high school pathway so they will have a better understanding of future opportunities.
If schools are to adequately prepare students for the workplace, a strong relationship between education and industry serves to have key advantages. These relationships are often forged with CTE partnerships. Also, local community colleges can be well-attuned to local industry needs and can offer workforce training, and partnering with these institutions can lend a helping hand in this approach as well. Involving the input of county commissioners and local industry leaders in educational decisions can also help secure more funding and work-based learning opportunities for student to lay the groundwork for them to fill the in-demand jobs in their communities — an approach that also keeps workers in the local pipeline.