By Kimberly Green and LeAnn Wilson
Read this op-ed as it originally appeared in Medium.com.
Career Technical Education (CTE) is more important than ever in today’s rapidly changing world. Former CTE students are heroes serving on the front lines during this global pandemic. They are healthcare workers pulling 16-hour shifts and treating our loved ones. They are manufacturing employees working tirelessly to provide life-saving supplies to hospitals, senior care facilities and grocery stores. They are educators delivering the best education possible to their students online. They are scientists racing to find a vaccine. And they are transportation, distribution, and logistics professionals working day and night so that we all have the supplies we need.
At the same time, 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment in only a few weeks, a number we have not seen since the Great Depression and which is guaranteed to rise. In light of the realized and forecasted economic downturn, we must act swiftly to mitigate employment and economic disruptions, particularly for the most vulnerable, while also preparing a talent pipeline for industries that are in high demand and most impacted.
Coronavirus has shined a light on and amplified a whole host of challenges. One of these is the nation’s digital divide, which has been elevated due to the growing reliance on distance learning. States, schools and colleges need additional funding for the digital and physical infrastructure necessary to rapidly transition classroom experiences into quality, online education. For CTE programs, the switch to online learning can be particularly challenging as programs work to incorporate the real-world experiences and hands-on learning typically associated with many CTE classes. There are several worthy solutions, including taking advantage of technologies like augmented and virtual reality, but they come at a steep price. That’s exactly why additional federal investments are so important: we need to make cutting edge learning approaches available to ensure learners can gain and demonstrate technical competencies that are critical for their career success both now and in the future, including in fields that are crucial to beating back the ongoing pandemic. Further, instructors, who have borne the brunt of a swift and completely unanticipated shift to online education need professional development to support their evolving responsibilities.
Looking ahead to the economic aftermath of the Coronavirus, there will be significant demands by learners of all ages for fast but quality upskilling and reskilling programs that result in careers with family-sustaining wages. This requires CTE programs, especially at the postsecondary level, to be nimble and proactive but they must also be proven. During the last recession, college enrollment increased by nearly 2.5 million students or 16 percent. The increase was largely due to nontraditional aged college students, and 50 percent of the new enrollments went to community colleges. A similar trend can be expected with the current predicted economic downturn. Importantly, we must ensure that additional federal resources to community and technical colleges and area CTE centers are at least proportional to this growth so that the most vulnerable learners have the full array of supports needed to regain their educational and economic footing. Additional federal investments targeted at wraparound services will help give learners the greatest chance at success and should address food and housing insecurity, financial aid flexibility, transportation, child care, and job search assistance.
While we do not yet know the long-term impact this pandemic will have on our nation, what we do know is that education, especially CTE, will be at the center of rebuilding our economy and the lives of many Americans. As Congress considers how best to address this ongoing tragedy, innovation and investment in our education and workforce systems will help foster a more equitable and accessible path forward that meets the needs of a rapidly evolving workplace and world.
Kimberly Green is the Executive Director of Advance CTE, which represents state leaders of Career Technical Education. For the past twenty-seven years, Kimberly A. Green has worked extensively on federal policy impacting CTE. Working closely with Congress, the administration and a broad range of stakeholders, she represents the interests of and seeks support for CTE. You can reach Ms. Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LeAnn Wilson is the executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), which represents tens of thousands of education professionals and is the nation’s largest not-for-profit association committed to the advancement of education that prepares youth and adults for successful careers. You can reach Ms. Wilson at email@example.com.