A Tale of Two CTEs: Kentucky’s Strengths and Missouri’s Weaknesses in Career Training

When students graduate high school, they know about the benefits of a college degree but not career training. Students who get some career and technical education (CTE) in high school can develop job skills and prepare for their future career without a college degree.

How states design their CTE programs, however, determines how useful this education is to students.

Kentucky, for example, embraces local business involvement in CTE much more than Missouri. Getting local industries and businesses involved matters because the partnerships help school officials identify in-demand skills and prepare students for a well-paid job.

In the long term, Kentucky could offer a better economic future for its young people than Missouri thanks to more engagement with local industries.

Kentucky’s TRACK (Tech Ready Apprentices for Careers in Kentucky) program connects high school students with businesses, letting them gain paid work experience in local industries such as business, marketing, manufacturing, construction, and welding. TRACK prepares students for non-college alternatives such as apprenticeship programs and helps them fulfill registered apprenticeship requirements along the way. Students still get an education and develop their skills, but they aren’t all shoehorned into a traditional college route.

TRACK was created in 2013 as a manufacturing industry pilot program and is just one part of the state’s CTE program. Since then, it has expanded to include electrical, welding, and business jobs. By 2016, TRACK had more than 300 students in skilled trades and about 40 students who either completed or were in progress of completing the manufacturing program. In the future, TRACK hopes to partner with more schools and businesses to prepare more students.

Part of TRACK’s success has come from emphasizing its partnerships. Kentucky’s CTE approach is similar to many other states, where high schools offer classes in specific career fields and students take a sequence of classes in their field of choice. High schools largely facilitate CTE, but career centers or dual credit opportunities may also exist. One TRACK employer participant, STOBER Drives Inc., liked how high school students are employed and contribute to the local economy; the employer can find a more productive employee if they choose to hire a successful TRACK student because the student already has the training and experience needed by the company.

After completing the one-to-two-year program, students also earn an industry credential, which is nationally recognized and indicates their job skills to future employers.

Although TRACK’s advantage is employer involvement and flexibility, it has been a challenge to set consistent standards across the program. Students may receive different training from different employers, and some students might work many more hours than others. This inconsistency could affect the benefits and outcomes of TRACK if students and employers have different ideas of what the program should be. However, standardizing curriculum and work experience expectations could restrict employer autonomy that is central to TRACK. Finding the right balance between standardization and autonomy will be tricky, but it is necessary to ensure a high-quality CTE program.

To improve those local efforts, Missouri policymakers could follow TRACK’s example and emphasize partnerships with employers.

Missouri’s approach to CTE, however, is less integrated with local businesses. The state offers a CTE certificate to students who take three or more CTE classes in a specific field of study, complete 50 hours of work-based learning, and pass a skills test. An industry credential can fulfill the skills test requirement, but it is optional, unlike TRACK’s integration of industry credentials. And the Missouri CTE certificate has not been vetted by industry professionals like a credential has, so employers may not fully trust the CTE certificate to validate a student’s skills.

Missouri students are required to gain work experience in their career field to receive a CTE certificate. While Missouri has registered apprenticeships, the state’s CTE programs do not make it easy for students to combine their CTE skills with registered apprenticeships like Kentucky does. Missouri students also choose their own CTE classes without industry guidance, so their classes may not relate to the skills they need on the job, and their work experience may not count toward an apprenticeship. Without a TRACKlike program, Missouri schools are on their own when building a business partnership for CTE students.

To improve those local efforts, Missouri policymakers could follow TRACK’s example and emphasize partnerships with employers. Partnering helps industries train future talent and students get an early start on their career, so employers can train students for in-demand jobs. Missouri’s health care and science and technology sectors, for example, particularly need more skilled workers to keep up with available jobs. Those fields are experiencing a worker shortage of about 9 percent, and business and sales face a 10 percent shortage.

Making CTE more useful also gives students more opportunities: Employers have created registered apprenticeships just to work with TRACK in Kentucky. Change in Missouri is crucial: only 15 percent of Missouri businesses reported in a Gallup survey that they thought high schools prepared students for the workforce. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry was told by a CEO that “We cannot find enough workers with the right skills. There is a mismatch.”

These different state approaches show that a good CTE program needs to do more than just check a box. Missouri could reform its CTE program by working with businesses to create career training programs that respond to local and regional needs. Partnerships are important in CTE because it ensures students learn valuable workforce skills, but also requires constant engagement because job needs change over time.

When partnering, schools and businesses should agree on student expectations for the job, how involved a student will be in the work, and the practical skills and experiences the student will gain in the program. Without agreeing on the outcomes and the shared purpose, partnerships are less likely to succeed.

Partnerships can be further complicated by layers of governance in education: the school, the district, state educational agency, and other actors can alienate businesses, as well as the paperwork and bureaucracy required for CTE programs. It can be difficult to establish and maintain partnerships but doing so is essential for students and the local workforce. Otherwise, young people may leave for better opportunities elsewhere. High-quality career training could prevent that loss by helping high schoolers find good jobs right after graduation and keep them local.

Students might know they have more than just the college option in hunting for a good job. States should make sure, however, that they connect students with industries. Kentucky’s model for collaboration could help states like Missouri improve their career training and outcomes for students.

Abigail Burrola graduated from Azusa Pacific University with a degree in political science and lives in St. Louis, Missouri.