Career and Technical Education Emerging as Vehicle for STEM in Trump Era

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Experiential, work-based career and technical education programs are receiving attention from policymakers and leaders in the scientific community as an emerging vehicle for STEM education, including through the Perkins reauthorization bill, a new National Science Board initiative on the skilled technical workforce, and ongoing programs at federal science agencies.

This month, the House passed two bipartisan bills designed to help students and workers obtain technical education and build up the nation’s technically trained workforce. The first, sponsored by Reps. Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Richard Hudson (R-NC), aims to promote energy and manufacturing education and training programs at the Department of Energy. The second, sponsored by Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA), is a major and long-awaited reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act of 2006.

The White House, meanwhile, recently concluded its “Workforce Development Week” with President Trump issuing an executive order that expands the role of private industry in developing apprenticeship programs.

CTE programs are also reflected in a recently completed National Academies study on the nation’s skilled technical workforce and a new initiative being spearheaded by the National Science Board.

Unlike most post-secondary federal STEM education programs that focus on four-year or advanced degree seekers, CTE programs use experiential, work-based curricula to prepare students for careers that do not require a bachelor’s degree. Many of these occupations are viewed as a critical component of the next generation of the STEM workforce, comprising jobs such as laboratory managers, nuclear technicians, and manufacturing specialists. As CTE receives a growing level of attention across government, policymakers and leaders in the scientific community plan to use CTE programs as a vehicle for advancing STEM education.

NSB launching ‘skilled technical workforce’ initiative

The NSB’s initiative on the “skilled technical workforce” was first proposed in February by board member Victor McCrary, who suggested the formation of a working group to gather information to “pinpoint NSF’s niche” in educating individuals outside of the four-year degree pathway, which he called the “blue collar STEM” workforce.

Many board members expressed enthusiasm for the effort at the February meeting, including NSB Chair Maria Zuber, who commented on how the initiative intersects with the Trump administration’s priorities, saying:

[The] blue collar STEM discussion will give an opportunity to think about NSF’s role in strengthening STEM-capable, technical, and manufacturing workforces. Our goal is to help ensure that the future STEM-driven economy is as inclusive as possible and that the progress of science is driven by the most diverse community possible. This speaks directly to the administration priorities of job creation in the United States.

Some members hesitated to label the initiative as “blue collar,” with Ruth David saying the term “conjures up an image that would be hard to shed.”  NSB ultimately chose to adopt the term “skilled technical workforce,” which was the terminology used in the recently published National Academies report on “Building the Skilled Technical Workforce.” The report explores concerns that the nation may not have an adequate supply of skilled technical workers to achieve its competitiveness and economic growth objectives, including in STEM fields.

At the board’s most recent meeting in May, McCrary, who now leads the initiative’s working group, said that their next step will be to organize listening sessions with stakeholders “to obtain a real-world understanding of the opportunities that folks in this arena will face.The group will then hold a symposium next spring to gather further information about what NSF and NSB could do to help strengthen the skilled technical workforce.

New CTE efforts would build on existing programs

Currently, most federal post-secondary STEM education programs concentrate on students seeking four-year degrees, but there are a number of programs that already support CTE by providing hands-on learning experiences with federal laboratories and industrial partners. The Department of Energy’s Community College Internship (CCI) program connects community college students with internship positions at one of 15 national energy laboratories.

NSF’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE), S-STEM scholarship, and Cyber Corps have all supported institutions granting two-year degrees. Specifically, ATE works with two-year degree granting institutions to promote science and engineering technician education programs through centers with partners from local industry, educational institutions, and economic development agencies. Originally established through the Scientific and Advanced Technology Act of 1992, the program has awarded over $950 million to CTE programs, with more than 65 percent of the funding supporting two-year degree granting institutions. ATE has six centers focusing on technologies in the physical sciences, including programs in aerospace, optics, lasers and fiber optics, nuclear science, and materials science.

In addition, one of the functions of the federally-supported Manufacturing USA is to serve as a network of learning centers for students at all education levels. Several institutes focus on providing CTE experiences in the physical sciences, including the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics) and the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI).

New federal initiatives would likely complement or augment these established programs.

Perkins Act reauthorization gets bipartisan push

Last authorized in 2006, the Perkins Act supports the development of CTE programs funded by the Department of Education as part of the larger strategy of preparing students for higher education and careers. The current version of the bill would gradually ramp up the authorized funding level for the career and technical education programs at the Education Department from $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2017 to $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2023. This increase contrasts with the Trump administration’s proposal to reduce CTE funding to $976 million in fiscal year 2018, a $148 million or 13 percent decrease below last year’s level. 

The bill would also provide major updates to the current law, including the elimination of the Education Department’s authority to withhold funds from the states for a lack of improvement in CTE program performance; and allowing states to set performance goals with input from local CTE communities instead of from the Education Department. 

Many members from both sides of the aisle have attested to how Perkins can be used to address the skills gap that exists in many job sectors impacted by rapidly advancing technology. Democratic and Republican members alike signed on to letters sent to leaders in both the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees with jurisdiction over Education Department programs this spring urging support of “strong” funding for the Perkins program in fiscal year 2018. 

During House floor debate, Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) emphasized the connection between CTE programs and STEM, arguing together they help to advance the economy:

These applied science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM education programs, are an important component of the innovation engine that drives our economy. As we work to move innovative technologies into the marketplace, we need a skilled workforce to build and implement them.

The Perkins Act has also received support from the physical science community. In a recent press release, the National Photonics Initiative congratulated the administration for its spotlight on workforce development and urged Congress to reauthorize Perkins and “include optics and photonics technical training opportunities between community colleges and US industry.”

The House last passed legislation to reauthorize Perkins in December 2016, but it died in the Senate shortly thereafter. While it is unknown whether the Senate will take up this year’s bill, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) recently said that passing the Perkins reauthorization is a priority of his in 2017.

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