As lawmakers and students grow weary of the rising cost of higher education, vocational training programs are drawing more attention and funding. But a new report finds that these programs are wildly out of step with the needs of today’s job market. To provide a real alternative to higher education, states and schools offering vocational programs should align vocational education with market needs.
Career and Technical Education programs offer options for students looking to avoid student loan debt. These programs equip high school and post-secondary students with the skills and credentials they need to secure jobs for tens of thousands of dollars less than the cost of a traditional 4-year college degree. However, most students are pursuing—and taxpayers are funding—credentials that offer little access to jobs, let alone well-paid ones.
The Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national education research organization, partnered with Burning Glass Technologies, a job market research firm to study U.S. vocational education. They found that in the 24 states they studied, the credentials students earn through career and technical education do not align with job markets.
In total, the study found that for 10 of the top 15 most popular credentials, students are earning more credentials than there are jobs available. In some cases, these credentials lead to no job opportunities at all. “General Career Readiness” credentials, such as financial literacy and basic first aid, for example, account for 28% of credentials earned, yet the study reported zero market demand for them.
Even when students do find jobs with low-demand credentials, they are often low-paying. According to data from the study and the Bureau of Labor statistics, only four of the top nine licenses earned by K-12 students lead to jobs with annual median salaries of approximately $35,000 or more. By contrast, median U.S. household income in 2017 totaled $60,336, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Worse yet, taxpayers are footing the bill for these programs. A recent oversight report found that in the last few years, the U.S. Department of Education spent hundreds of millions of dollars on vocational education programs including hair and beauty schools, gaming and bartending classes, refrigeration school, and a Professional Golfers Career College. Last year, Congress agreed to channel and additional $1.2 billion to career and technical education over the next six years, and states augment this funding with hundreds of millions of dollars of their own resources.
Instead of funding credentials that translate to few or no jobs, these resources could be helping students obtain credentials that position them for available jobs with significant salaries. For example, the Foundation for Excellence in Education study found that employers are looking to fill tens of thousands of jobs with employees who have EEG/EKG/ECG Certifications, CompTIA A+ Security+ certifications, and with Cisco Certified Network Associates—positions that come with median annual salaries between $50,132 to $82,296 per year.
If the states and nation are earnest about making career and technical programs a viable path to gainful employment, they must do more than fund these programs, they should align the credentials they offer with market demands.
Finland’s vocational education program, for example, is shaped by just such analysis. According to the National Center on Education and the Economy, The Finnish National Board of Education determines what vocational education will be offered throughout the country based on regularly updated analysis of projections for what the the nation’s industry needs will be in 15 years.
This program has proved both popular and successful at helping Finnish students secure jobs. At age 16, Finnish students choose whether to focus on preparing for university or to pursue vocational education. According to the Organization for Economic Development, Finland has one the highest enrollment rates in upper secondary vocational education, with 71% of upper secondary students enrolled in vocational education programs. And overall, Finnish vocational graduates (age 20-64) experience a 73.4% employment rate, several percentage points higher than average vocational graduate employment rate in the European Union.
The United States could do similarly. Industry needs vary from state to state, so states and schools could optimize career and technical education resources by auditing which credentials are in demand in the labor market, and then directing students and funding to those credentials. These adjustments would benefit employers seeking qualified employees in high-demand fields, students seeking cost-effective paths to employment, and schools whose increased graduate employment rates attract more potential students.
Vocational education programs offer students tremendous education opportunities, but with some intentional adjustments, we can make them even more practical.