Career Technical Education: What It Can and Cannot Do in Building a Next Middle Class


At community colleges throughout the nation, Career Technical Education (CTE) is attracting sharply increased funding and growth. Focused on training for the “new technician” jobs, CTE offers promise of building a new middle class.

Is this so? How widespread an impact can CTE have? What are these “new technician” jobs? How many “new technician” jobs really are out there?

A new report, “Career Technical Education: Reducing Wage Inequality and Sustaining California’s Innovation-Based Economy” from the Center for Jobs and Human Capital at the Milken Institute, helps us sort through some of these questions. The author, Ross DeVol is the chief research officer at the Institute and the lead on the widely cited “Best-Performing Cities: Where America’s Jobs Are Created” annual series. He has a long-time interest in technical education — his father was head of the Ohio post-secondary vocational education program for over two decades.

The new technician jobs that are the focus of CTE training span sectors and occupations. In Healthcare, for example, CTE programs include emergency medical technician, phlebotomist, medical assistant, radiology technician and respiratory therapist; in advanced manufacturing, the new technician jobs include bioscience technician, electro mechanical technician and team assembler. What is common among these new technician jobs and many others is that they usually start at over $40,000 per year with opportunities for wage progression, are within the reach of adults with at least eighth grade reading and math levels, and can be mastered within a one- or two- year period.
Here in California, the state has funded a CTE-based Career Pathways Trust initiative at over $250 million for each of the past two years. It also has funded a new CTE-related apprenticeship initiative with the community colleges and CTE-related curriculum development, equipment, courses and internships

DeVol argues that this CTE momentum not only should be continued, but expanded, for several reasons. First, is the employment dynamic: DeVol estimates that within the next decade, 30 percent of all job openings will require post-secondary education below the level of a four-year degree. Job openings for new technicians will be driven by baby boomer retirements as well as technology and economics driving tasks to para-professionals and away from higher-paying professionals.Beyond employment, DeVol draws on previous Milken Institute research on regional economies to argue the relation between the investment in CTE and growth of regional GDP per capita. Further, he argues that CTE investment will have greater impact than other higher education investment in reducing income inequality, writing, “While the state should support attendance and graduation at UC and CSU, increased funding for postsecondary career technical education will have a more immediate impact on reducing wage inequality.”