#RethinkSchool: Creating Pathways and Closing the Skills Gap

During the Back to School tour, I had the pleasure of touring the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita, Kansas on my first stop on my tour through Kansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Tennessee. The National Center for Aviation Training (NCAT) offers a variety of aviation degree and certificate programs to students who can begin their path toward becoming skilled professionals in an aviation-related field. NCAT prides itself on its state-of-the-art aviation training facility and its ability to provide quality experiences and skills that prepare students for future careers in aviation such as Aerostructures, Avionics, Composites and Aviation Maintenance. NCAT was primarily funded and built by Sedgwick County, Kansas to meet aviation manufacturing workforce demand. Wichita Area Technical College (WSU Tech) serves as the managing partner for the Center, partnering with Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research, to provide industry-driven training courses.

I was amazed by the quality of the facility and the excellent instruction that was taking place during my visit. Dr. Sheree Utash, President of Wichita State University Technical College, led the tour and I was joined by a number of local school district superintendents and business and industry partners. Representatives from Spirit AeroSystems and Textron talked to me about the workforce pipeline that NCAT has created in Kansas; a pipeline that has been desperately needed due to critical shortages of skilled aviation workers in the United States. In fact, this shortage isn’t just limited to niche industries like aviation. America’s business leaders are reporting that our country has a workforce skills gap—that we have more job vacancies than Americans with the technical skills needed to fill them. The Business Roundtable, the U.S Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and other organizations are warning that this skills gap is holding our economy back. Fortunately, in July, President Trump signed the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (also known as “Perkins V”). This legislation amends and extends the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education, the federal government’s principal source of funding for career and technical education (CTE). The program provides more than $1 billion to states, school districts and community colleges annually. The newly reauthorized legislation requires states and local districts to consider local workforce needs and solicit the input of local business and industry when creating their Career and Technical Education State Plans. I was proud to see that NCAT is already doing this—and doing it exceptionally well.

While I was excited to see local industry at the table, the most exciting part of the tour was learning more about the seamless secondary to post-secondary transition that NCAT offers to local high school students. Wichita Public Schools and WSU Tech recently launched the first high school aviation education CTE program and career pathway in the state of Kansas. Students in the Wichita area are able to take classes at NCAT in 9th-12th grade and jumpstart their training and education for a career in aviation. Through these classes, students have the opportunity to earn technical certificates in aviation production and maintenance that will prepare them for employment in aviation, but also allow them to easily transition from high school into post-secondary education. The state of Kansas pays for the postsecondary tuition of high school students enrolled in college-level CTE courses. This initiative, Excel in CTE, has enabled students to begin a CTE pathway while in high school, and has enabled over 2,500 high school students to enroll in CTE courses at WSU Tech. By bridging this gap, students at WSU Tech enter the postsecondary education arena with fewer courses left to take in order to earn their Associates degree and with little to no debt burden hanging over their heads as they navigate life after high school. In fact, Dr. Utash explained to me that many students in the aviation production pathway graduate from high school “workforce ready” and do not need to obtain any further postsecondary education.

As states begin to craft their Perkins CTE State Plans, I hope they will consider the best practices I saw at the National Center for Aviation Training. The new law gives states, districts and community colleges much greater freedom to decide how best to use the federal investment in CTE to prepare young people and adults for careers. I hope that they will be disruptive innovators and #Rethink the ways in which they “do CTE” by bringing workforce and business leaders to the table and building seamless secondary to post-secondary career pathways for students.

Tech Ready Apprentices for Careers in Kentucky (TRACK)

Eleven months prior to nominating me as Assistant Secretary of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order titled, “Expanding Apprenticeships in America.” This order called for the creation of a special Task Force, whose job it would be to identify strategies and proposals to promote apprenticeships in the United States. To meet this challenge, Department of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta brought together representatives from companies, labor unions, trade associations, educational institutions and public agencies. On May 10, 2018, the Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion submitted a report to the President that provided a strategy to create more apprenticeships in the United States through an Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship model. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who helped lead the Task Force, said of the report: “Apprenticeships give students proven and meaningful ways to gain skills and kickstart fulfilling careers…We must continue our efforts to strengthen workforce readiness and increase the number of pathways available to students after high school.”

The Commonwealth of Kentucky recognized the importance and influence of apprenticeships when it created the Tech Ready Apprentices for Careers in Kentucky (TRACK) program in 2013 as a way to create more career pathways and post-secondary opportunities for students. A partnership between the Kentucky Department of Education and Kentucky’s Department of Labor, TRACK provides secondary students with seamless career pathway opportunities into Registered Apprenticeships. Perhaps one model of what education could be if we Rethink Schools. Given the priorities of President Trump and Secretary DeVos, and the recent reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, I thought there would be no better time than now to visit Kentucky and see the TRACK program for myself.

TRACK was designed specifically to create a pipeline for students to enter post-secondary apprenticeship training while gaining credit for courses taken and on-the-job hours worked in high school. Students are able to try out a skill before committing themselves to a career. When they do commit, students are able to obtain credit toward and gain entry into an apprenticeship program in an in-demand career field as well as gain real-world workplace skills. By allowing business and industry to drive training and program development, TRACK ensures that employers are able to tailor the program for their specific needs. Students develop a solid foundation and interest in a future occupation, and receive a nationally recognized, stackable credential without incurring student debt. In June 2017, the United States Department of Education named TRACK as the top best-practice youth apprenticeship model in the nation. It is safe to say that this program is the real deal.

Scott Stump visited Kentucky’s AMTECK program.

On the Back to School Tour, I joined Mary Taylor, the Training and Development Specialist at the Kentucky Department of Education, Jon Dougherty, the Education Director at AMTECK, and a number of local school superintendents and CTE instructors on a tour of AMTECK, an electrical contracting company that operates throughout the southeastern United States. AMTECK operates both pre-apprentice and apprentice programs through TRACK. I was able to meet and speak with a number of youth apprentices working at AMTECK. Each of these students told me the same thing: apprenticeship is absolutely the best way to learn and earn at the same time. They were so thankful for the opportunity TRACK and AMTECK provided to them. They were excited about the opportunity they have to seamlessly transition from high school into an apprenticeship, allowing them to very quickly obtain a well-paying job in an in-demand field upon graduation. As I reflected on these conversations, I couldn’t help but think about Secretary DeVos’s desire to Rethink School. One of the questions the Secretary has been asking is, “Why do we suggest a college degree is the only path to success?” Through the TRACK program, students across Kentucky are finding excellent life-long careers in fields that make them happy while they are still in high school. I’m thankful for the Secretary’s leadership in asking the hard questions. We must continue to ask them.

What could Kentucky do if more businesses and schools opened their minds to the apprenticeship model? What if programs like TRACK existed in every single state? How many more pathways could we create for young people in this country? I’m going to continue to ask these questions and I hope that you will join me.

 

Scott Stump is Assistant Secretary for Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education

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Note: This is a post in our #RethinkSchool series. The series features innovative schools and stories from students, parents and educators highlighting efforts across the United States to rethink school. The #RethinkSchool series presents examples of approaches schools, educators, families and others are using to rethink school in their individual and unique circumstances. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The Department of Education does not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.