Not just vocational education anymore

Dec. 09, 2012 @ 08:13 AM

A local economy that has for years been driven by manufacturing and furniture is suffering. Thousands of jobs have been lost, many of which may not return. Misplaced workers are filling the seats at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, eager to earn their GEDs or learn a new trade. The keys to economic and workforce development for the 21st century in Caldwell County just might be held by the Caldwell County Schools Career-Technical Education program. It is the engine that is driving partnerships with area industries to meet their needs, and that of the county’s underemployed or unemployed. The stakeholders include teachers, counselors, students, parents and administrators, as well as businesses and industries.

Caldwell County is unique in the collaborative partnership it enjoys between the college and Caldwell County Schools. Last year, the Career-Technical Education (CTE) program underwent a comprehensive review and analysis to ensure the cogs in the wheels of education and industry mesh. Schools underwent program audits. Curriculum for workforce development was examined with a fine tooth comb. Business leaders visited schools to look at the programs already in place. What they saw amazed them.

“The school visits were eye-opening,” Caldwell County Economic Development Commission Director Deborah Murray said.  “I had no clue there were so many applications relevant to 21st century industry.”

Committees and groups merged to forge a task force chaired by Murray.

“I wanted a business person to head a committee, to take an overall picture of the schools and examine how our training was meeting what type of work force,” said CTE Director Kathy Jo Eckard.”

They learned the tools and systems were already in place. While industry leaders were clamoring for a specialized workforce, the task force found their needs could be met through CTE. But CTE was lost in translation, among all the acronyms being thrown about in education. CTE evolved out of the vocational technical education programs of the past, where the perception was that those enrolled in Votech were students destined to blue-collar work. Not so now. CTE has evolved into a highly technical specialized training and certificate program. CTE courses are  not just automotive and construction trades. The CTE program also includes health sciences, software, drafting and engineering, robotics, digital media, food sciences and other technical career paths. Jobs in these areas now offer competitive pay. Graduates now have an alternative to a four-year college degree through CTE and still be in the money. Certification in WorkKeys – a National Career Readiness program, gives graduates an added star on their resumes, letting industry know they are ready and trained.

According to 2011 CTE performance data, CTE concentrators (four CTE credits with one at the advanced level) had a 94 percent graduation rate.

“Education is your ticket to better pay and jobs,” Murray said. “It is my job to let the community know we have that here.”

Currently, 75 CTE courses are offered in Caldwell County schools. At least half of the system’s 12th graders (except at the Early College High School) are graduating with a CTE concentration.

“It’s a different world. Businesses are saying we want, we want, but weren’t involved and didn’t know schools were digging their heels wanting to do more,” Murray said.

One of the main goals of the task force is to better market the CTE program to industry and the community. Manufacturing is entrenched in Caldwell County, but the face of the industry is rapidly diversifying and changing. Keeping up with the technology and filling those jobs is the main goal of CTE.

“We are very fortunate in Caldwell County to have a school system that sees the value and potential of a 21st century CTE program,” Murray said. “It can have a dramatic positive workforce development and economic development  impact. We now have eager partners in education, industry and government, and I can’t wait to see the results as these partnerships grow.”