Helping career and technical education programs meet this moment

Narni Summerall and Kamilah Harruna at Social Finance, and Charlotte Cahill and Sheila Jackson at JFF September 1, 2020

Thirty-two percent to 42% of COVID-19 induced layoffs will become permanent, according to a recent forecast by the Becker Friedman Institute. As a result, Americans will be forced to adapt to a labor market landscape vastly different from that which existed six months ago. As the economy recovers, even as some jobs may not return, there will be an ever-growing demand for skilled tradespeople, software developers, and healthcare professionals.

High-quality career and technical education (CTE) can help boost in-demand employment opportunities for young people. However, education providers face unprecedented budget pressures as a result of the pandemic. Against this backdrop, we spoke with CTE leaders across the country to get a better understanding of the challenges they’re facing and how they might avoid or mitigate them.

From their origin, CTE programs have offered an essential option for students to prepare for stable careers that pay living wages. CTE programs advance equity by offering an alternative pathway for students who may not thrive in traditional academic environments or who may not have the resources to attend postsecondary institutions. But key features of some CTE programs, especially hands-on and work-based learning, are not simple to convert to a virtual environment. Thousands of CTE programs around the country are grappling with this and other challenges, which could help define the next generation of CTE programs.

The insights gained from these interviews informed the design of the 2020 Catalyzing Career and Technical Education Competition, from Social Finance and JFF. With funding from the US Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, the competition will provide support to scale high-quality, Perkins-eligible CTE programs through technical assistance from Social Finance and JFF. This technical assistance will help CTE programs navigate these tumultuous times, develop innovative financing mechanisms that focus on results, and train growing numbers of students for jobs in the new economy that pay living wages. The ultimate goal is for these programs to integrate new funding mechanisms that recognize impact and lead to long-term sustainability.

Through our recent interviews with CTE leaders across the country, we heard the same common challenges that CTE sites face in the current environment:

1. Inadequate funding: School districts across the country are facing even tighter budgets this year as they race to implement fully or partially remote models, while making major modifications to protect students and teachers from the risk of viral transmission. These financial shortfalls hamper the ability of districts to offer high-quality, innovative CTE programs at a time when those programs are most needed to give students a leg up in postsecondary programs and careers. As one expert based in Indiana said, “CTE sites are facing unfair and unsustainable pressures. States are consistently cutting CTE budgets. Other employers and philanthropic organizations are having to fill in these budgetary gaps, which isn’t sustainable.” This decrease in financial resources will make it extremely difficult for sites to meet the increasing demand forecasted by experts. As a result, many programs feel limited to their core competencies though they recognize the need to expand their services and the potential threat to enrollment if they do not adapt.

Resources for CTE Programs

  • This JFF brief explains how federal Perkins funding can be leveraged to support high-quality CTE and pathways.
  • According to a recent report by Advance CTE, the foundational skills for success will be human skills, digital block skills, and business enabler skills.

2. Difficulties with remote learning implementation: CTE sites are rethinking how they can provide support to students through a remote learning environment. While it has been easier for CTE programs focused on coding and other tech industries to adapt to the changes, more hands-on sectors including health care and manufacturing have struggled to maintain effective programming. An expert based in California stated that sites are “at the point where they are having to reimagine how to make it work online since the pandemic has been much more prolonged than initially anticipated.” This virtual delivery disproportionately affects some students and teachers, particularly in rural areas, who have limited access to computers and high-speed internet. While the challenges associated with the pivot to online learning are daunting, the development of best practices for the virtual environment may continue to enrich student experiences long beyond the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Resources for CTE Programs

  • The Association for Career & Technical Education (ACTE) has compiled a robust toolkit to support CTE programs in making the transition. Resources include strategies to maintain student engagement, ensure ongoing alignment to standards, and complete meaningful assessments in the virtual environment.
  • The Learning Keeps Going website offers resources, curated by a coalition of education organizations, to support educators during extended school closures. This site includes hundreds of digital tools available for free as well as parent-facing resources for supporting students at home.
  • The Education Commission of the States has published a series of briefs on key topics related to equitable transitions during pandemic disruptions. Recommendations focus on increasing FAFSA completion, revamping math pathways to improve access, and promoting dual enrollment among black and Hispanic students, who are currently less likely than their white peers to pursue this promising pathway to degree completion.

3. Decreased employer engagement: Partnerships with local employers are a key incentive for students who enroll in CTE programs. As businesses lay off workers and struggle to remain profitable, it is increasingly challenging for them to offer work-based learning opportunities to students and advise on CTE curricula. “Contact with local businesses is very important to any CTE program and keeping them relevant,” a representative of a rural California school district said, and “there has been a huge drop off in their ability to communicate well with these businesses.” As a result, sites are grappling with the challenge of giving students critical experiences with less employer support — or finding new ways to engage employers. CTE sites that have forged relationships with smaller employers who were hardest hit by the pandemic are particularly affected. Additionally, there can also be a disparity in experience between students who are interested in lower-demand industries such as agriculture and manufacturing rather than the bigger, growing sectors such as healthcare and IT.

Resources for CTE Programs

  • The National Governors Association recently published a memo containing examples from across the country regarding how states are adapting on-the-job learning as well as a set of resources for CTE professionals.
  • Education Systems Center at Northern Illinois University has developed a framework for virtual work-based learning.

Conversations with CTE providers helped us understand more about the specific challenges and opportunities CTE sites have in orienting their programming to this pivotal moment. Social Finance and JFF will select up to two sites to partner with through the 2020 Catalyzing Career and Technical Education Competition.

The technical assistance will help CTE sites adapt to the unprecedented challenges that the COVID-19 crisis presents and set them up for success after the pandemic. Technical assistance services will employ data-driven approaches to help sites make informed decisions about their programs and the services they offer, identifying potential funding strategies, and evaluating best practices.

Our aim is that, through this competition, Social Finance and JFF will help winning sites leverage outcomes-based funding to develop plans to scale in order to provide high-quality CTE opportunities to an increased number of high-need youth. More details on the competition can be found here.

The application has been designed to require as little time as possible to complete given the burdens that CTE sites are confronting. An optional (strongly encouraged) Letter of Intent is due October 16, 2020; those who submit the letter will receive feedback regarding their eligibility. Final proposals are due December 4, 2020, and awards will be announced on January 29, 2021.

Visit the competition page >>

This blog also appears on JFF’s website.