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Hard Numbers, Concrete Skills, and Cementing Our Place in the Global Workforce

My colleague Heather Singmaster explains how CTE supports stronger individual financial success, as well as for states and the national economy.

By Heather Singmaster

"Unemployment rates are up!" scream the headlines. The August numbers show unemployment is up in half of all states.

Unemployment figures say a lot about the strength of the economy. To some, it's also an indicator of political effectiveness. At a meta level, unemployment levels are a measure of whether an education system is meeting the demands of the workforce.

Today's workplace is demanding different skills from its workers than in the past. To quote the annual OECD report, Education At a Glance 2012, "In the increasingly knowledge-based global economy, people with high skills are in greater demand in the labour market, while those with less education are more likely to be at risk of being unemployed, especially during periods of economic downturn." As we all know, during the recent economic crisis there were large jumps in unemployment.

It's no secret that a Bachelor's degree can make one more attractive in the job market. However, the OECD research shows a decline in attainment of bachelor degrees by Americans ages 25 to 34. This could have something to do with the cost: the cost of higher education in the United States is the second highest in the world, averaging $116,000.

Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, known internationally as Vocational Education and Training (VET), are more affordable than traditional college programs and can give graduates access to on-the-job training that help them succeed in the labor market.

A new report just released by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce found that there are 29 million jobs that pay a middle-class wage and don't require an expensive Bachelor's degree. The report, Career and Technical Education: Five Ways That Pay Along the Way to the B.A., lists alternative paths to middle-class jobs: employer-based training, postsecondary certificates, registered apprenticeships, industry-based certifications, and associate degrees. The report recommends more investment by the government in these types of programs to strengthen our workforce: jobs for those with just a high school diploma are quickly disappearing or offer very low wages. But there are jobs out there for those with skills beyond high school but without a Bachelor's.

OECD research also shows that CTE programs provide a good return on public investment. In fact the average employment rate of a person with a vocational upper secondary degree is 75.5%, 4.8 points higher than for those with a general upper secondary degree.

"Countries need an increasingly educated and skilled workforce to succeed in today's knowledge economy," said OECD Secretary-General Angel GurrĂ­a. "High-quality education and skills have to be among the number-one priorities for governments, for economies, and for societies. Supporting the poorest and ensuring equal access is another important pillar in an inclusive education policy strategy."

When looking at the new unemployment numbers, think beyond the fraction of a percentage point increases to the bigger picture: are our schools on the right track?

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