Three Ways to Improve Employability Skills during CTE Month

Published feb. 15, 2016

What’s going on in career and technical education (CTE)? Now is the time to find out.

February is CTE Month®. A campaign sponsored by the Association of Career and Technical Education (ACTE), CTE Month® provides a platform for schools, students, and employers to demonstrate how career and technical education prepares youth and adults for high-wage, high-skill, high-demand careers. This year’s theme is “Opportunities for Career Success.”

CTE helps students succeed in school and in their chosen career fields by providing opportunities to interact with employers and offering real-world learning opportunities. These work-centered experiences build employability skills—the general skills that are necessary for success in the labor market at all employment levels and in all sectors—such as communication, problem-solving, and the ability to work well with diverse colleagues, which employers value in all hires. 

All young people—indeed all people—need employability skills. These skills are critical to success in college, career, and civic life. Eighty-four percent of business leaders said the amount of knowledge a candidate has in a particular field was "very important," followed by 79% who said applied skills were very important. Yet only 13% of Americans strongly agree college graduates in this country are well prepared for success in the workplace—a significant gap. 

So what can be done to improve employability skills among Americans entering the labor market?

Here are three ideas.

1. Enroll more students in CTE courses.

Only about one in four students (29%) earned five or more CTE credits. Although many people think that CTE is primarily for students who don’t plan to pursue higher education, in fact, more than 75% of CTE students do pursue postsecondary education shortly after high school. These students have the advantage of early work experiences that can inform their educational choices, and professional networks that make it easier to work while pursuing postsecondary credentials and to build their careers over time.

2. Assess students on employability skills.

The business adage “What gets measured gets done” may very well apply to the integration of employability skills into educational and employment settings. But these skills are difficult to measure and are rarely included in traditional school-based assessments. Over the past two years there has been tremendous interest on the part of education, business, and government leaders to engage a broad array of experts and researchers around the question of defining these competencies. The White House, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and the Funders’ Collaborative for Innovative Measurement, which includes The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other philanthropic organizations, with research and technical support from RAND and JFF, have participated in this effort. Current work led by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, and supported by JFF and Social Policy Research Associates, is identifying ways to measure these skills and opportunities for integrating assessment for these skills into more traditional academic assessment systems. 

3. Engage business in state and local efforts to enhance employability skills.

Many employers already participate in shaping policy, designing curricula, and providing employment opportunities for students seeking to build career skills and those pursuing higher education. Many more could. Similarly, educators at K-12, college, and university levels are engaging employers in pilot programs that can be scaled up, replicated in other fields, or expanded to other communities. Many more could. 

Creating opportunities for all students to build real skills, professional networks, and great careers linked to their academic interests is both important and urgent. 

Let’s dedicate every month to this mission. 

The work reported herein by JFF was supported by the U.S. Department of Education, award number EDVAE15R0034, from 25 September 2015 – 24 September 2016. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education or the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.