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Upcoming state-level plans for CTE programs and workforce development could have important ripple effects on their economies, U.S. Department of Education officials say.

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The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a memo to state governors urging them to prepare statewide plans for advancing career and technical education and workforce development.

The memo notes that the four-year strategic plans, due this spring, haven’t been updated since 2020 and need revamping to align with new federal investments in workforce development and state workforce needs that have dramatically changed since the pandemic. Department officials stressed the importance of these road maps for states’ economies and offered recommendations for making these plans more detailed and equity-driven and using policy levers underutilized by some states to bolster workforce education.

The plans are required in order for states to receive two types of federal funding: funds from the amended Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, known as Perkins V, and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). States distribute Perkins V funds to career and technical education (CTE) efforts at the postsecondary and college levels, while WIOA funds go toward a range of workforce development initiatives, including adult education programs.

State leaders drafted their current plans before the pandemic and “prior to essentially the world turning upside down,” including massive changes to “the world of teaching and learning, the world of work, our economy,” said Amy Loyd, assistant secretary for career, technical and adult education in the Department of Education.

She added that President Joe Biden has also signed into law a slew of workforce-related legislation since then, such as the CHIPS and Science Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, which pour historic amounts of money into workforce development in certain fields including clean energy, semiconductors and biotechnology.

Katie Spiker, managing director of government affairs at the National Skills Coalition, a research and advocacy organization focused on workforce training, highlighted recent research commissioned by her organization that found that these laws are expected to result in about three million jobs per year in a variety of fields.

New plans will have to account for “the skyrocketing demand some industries are seeing that’s so different from four years ago” and the training students need to land those jobs, she said. These new jobs “are predominantly jobs that are both good jobs and they’re jobs that require some education past high school but not a four-year degree.”

Shalin Jyotishi, senior adviser for education, labor and the future of work at New America, a public policy think tank, stressed that these state plans take on a new importance at “a time of unprecedented historic investments.”

“The call for states to think about skating to where the puck is going and being proactive and not just reactive to workforce development needs is really, really great to see,” he said.

Planning for the Future

The memo notes that no state has updated the labor market data in its plans since fiscal year 2020 and encourages state leaders to do so to better “align CTE programs to the current and future economy.” The memo argues that these data are key to identifying and setting state goals, including closing equity gaps in job outcomes, preparing workers for existing and emerging industries, and re-engaging students who stopped out of high school or college and adult workers who left the labor market.

Department officials also stress the importance of defining terms, such as “high skill,” “high wage” and “in demand,” when setting goals for the kinds of jobs CTE programs should prepare students for. The memo notes that only half of states defined “high wage,” 24 states defined “high skill” and 26 states defined “in demand” in their current plans required for Perkins V funding. Only 22 states have definitions for all three terms.

The memo offers models for definitions. For example, it highlights New Mexico, which defines “high skill” as jobs that require a college degree or certificate, an industry-recognized certificate, or an apprenticeship and “high wage” as a “living wage,” described as 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines for a family of three. The state defines “in demand” as a field for which demand exceeds supply as demonstrated by state, regional or local labor market data.

“Our hopes and dreams are for every young person and adult to have a good job that has a living, thriving wage, that has stability, that provides benefits [and] … opportunity for career advancement and economic advancement,” Loyd said. The goal is for state lawmakers to clearly outline what makes for a good job and be “really thoughtful about terms that we all use but we don’t often sit back and say, ‘What do we mean when we say this term?’”

In a similar vein, the memo notes that Perkins V funding can only go to CTE programs that “are of sufficient size, scope, and quality to be effective” and urges states to clearly define what “size,” “scope” and “quality” mean.

Jyotishi noted his appreciation for the memo’s focus on positive job outcomes, but, he said, in defining program quality, it’s important for state leaders to keep in mind that “many community colleges are oftentimes asked to train for jobs that sometimes don’t pay a local living wage,” such as early childhood educators and allied health professionals, and “that’s not the fault of program quality.”

The memo also emphasizes the importance of closing equity gaps in CTE programs and publicizing data that would shed light on them. It highlights some of the latest national CTE program data, which showed some disquieting disparities. Notably, about 66 percent of high school students who took at least two CTE classes, or “CTE concentrators,” transitioned to college or a job after graduating, but only about 37 percent of these students with disabilities and roughly 19 percent of English language learners in these classes did so during the 2020–21 academic year.

Department officials encourage states to use student outcomes data disaggregated by race, socioeconomic status, gender and other categories to set equity goals and establish strategies to hold programs accountable.

For example, Perkins V funds are distributed to colleges based on a set funding formula that accounts for how many students receive Pell Grants and how many receive financial assistance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to attend CTE programs.

But the memo notes that states can create alternate formulas as well. Nine states created funding formulas for colleges and universities that take into account the numbers of low-income students enrolled, defined not only by whether students receive Pell Grants but also if they receive other public benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Medicaid. That way more funds can reach community and technical colleges, where students tend to fill out their financial aid forms at lower rates compared to those at universities in some states, and industry credential programs that aren’t Pell eligible, the memo noted.

Jyotishi, of New America, said some of the memo’s recommendations would be hard for community colleges to enact at this point, including collecting and publicizing disaggregated student outcomes data for CTE programs.

“This is a great goal, but it could be a challenge in implementation,” he said. “So, my recommendation for states is to consider how they would build the capacity for WIOA and Perkins recipients to actually do this. Community colleges are especially not well set up to collect noncredit data.”

The memo also suggests states have underutilized portions of their funding. Notably, Perkins V allows states to have a “reserve fund” to “foster innovation and promote labor market alignment,” the memo says. Only 14 states currently allocate the full percentage possible to their reserve funds. States also can set aside a percentage of funding for “state leadership activities,” intended to include recruiting and retaining CTE faculty members and education programs for incarcerated students. Four states did not fully use the state leadership funds available to them. Only nine states used the full amount they could to serve incarcerated students.

Loyd said state leaders might see crafting their plans as just a “compliance exercise” for federal dollars, but she wants to see states design the best plans possible, because “I truly believe that it’s not an exaggeration to say that the vision that states have, the opportunity to create and carry forward through their Perkins state plans, through their WIOA state plans, is really what’s going to shape the future of our nation.

“It’s what’s going to drive how education and workforce fuel our economy,” she said. “That’s going to drive how young people and our adults who are looking to seek economic opportunity through our community colleges access and engage in the high-quality, high-growth, in-demand careers that are going to continue to grow our nation and allow it to continue to thrive into the future.”

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