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Liz Shuler's picture

For a long time, we’ve assumed there was one path to success for America’s kids: College prep courses in high school followed by four or more years of a college education.

But that formula leaves a lot of people out—like people whose families can’t afford college, those who can’t face the huge debt burden of college loans and young people whose career goals do not require a four-year bachelor’s degree.

It also leaves out a lot of jobs—new jobs that traditional high schools aren’t necessarily preparing young people for.

We need to be more creative in our thinking about education—we can’t afford to construct only one educational path that leaves a lot of people out. We need to create multiple pathways into good jobs and career success.

While college costs soar, the need is growing for skilled workers in advanced manufacturing, health care, hospitality, construction, coding and other fields. To get many of these jobs, and make a good living, young people need access to pathways that include career counseling, apprenticeships, paid internships, on-the-job training, skill certifications and learning based in the workplace—along with some college-level studies.

So it’s time to rethink the formula for success.

That’s what 150 business leaders, educators, labor representatives and government officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Tom Perez, did last Thursday. We came together at the Career and Technical Education (CTE)/Workforce Development Summit, sponsored by the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers.

It’s a simple concept. We’ve realized that good jobs and prepared employees don’t come together magically. It takes counseling, training and preparation, which CTE/Workforce Development programs provide. A range of high schools, community colleges, four-year colleges and labor-management partnerships are enabling participants—whether high schoolers or older laid-off workers—to develop skills that will open the door to good jobs and careers.

Alexis Smith is one example. She’s a recent graduate of the Toledo Technology Academy in Toledo, Ohio, which combines traditional academics and technical education. Alexis is now a student at Toledo University on a full-ride scholarship, studying for a career in biomedical engineering.

“My experience at Toledo Tech opened up the doors of opportunity for me to delve into my passion,” she said at the summit. “My teachers nurtured my dreams.”

Alexis plans to improve medical technology—specifically, she wants to design an MRI machine that is more comfortable for people with claustrophobia. She just might, given the opportunity.

In my background at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), again and again I’ve seen people working their way into the American Dream, into middle-class careers, through union apprenticeships and now pre-apprenticeships. These programs work because they are partnerships—workers, employers and the community coming together to reach common goals: high-quality skills and high-quality work.

But it’s something that demands real investment from unions, employers, government and foundations. We should think about workforce development as a fundamental part of America’s infrastructure, as basic to our economy and our communities as building roads and bridges. In fact, workforce development is a bridge—a bridge to our future, for our kids and for today’s workers, and to the jobs and the technology of today and tomorrow.

At the Summit, participant after participant described great CTE/workforce development programs all over the country. One thing was very clear: We know what works. We know how to prepare today’s workers and tomorrow’s for good jobs in every field. We have the models. Now we have to take it all to scale so many more can benefit.

That means introducing moms and dads to the opportunities CTE/workforce development offers, and convincing parents that it should be a top choice rather than a consolation prize for secondary and post-secondary education. America’s kids need access to multiple pathways to career success. I’m hoping the video in this post about a program in Chicago will inspire you as it does me, and if you are making education choices with your children that you’ll explore this pathway, too.


See what happens at Austin Polytechnical Academy in Chicago, thanks to a dynamic partnership.

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