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Students from Wyoming's new CTE instruction bridge course practice teaching construction skills

Creedon Newell (left) and Rachel Lear practice teaching construction skills as part of a new bridge course designed to expose trade professionals and community college students in Wyoming to the career path as a CTE instructor.

Rob Hill

The University of Wyoming’s College of Education is partnering with community college leaders across the state in an attempt to fill a sizable gap in career and technical education instructors in high school dual-enrollment programs and at two-year colleges.

The new program, which is currently being piloted, is centered on an online bridge course designed to expose students in the state to new opportunities in skills-based education, spark interest in the career path and establish a stronger pipeline of future instructors.

Jenna Shim, interim dean of the College of Education, said there’s been a “pressing” need to address the shortage for quite some time, but it’s gaining even more attention as the sparsely populated state’s role in the energy sector grows and the demand for a strong workforce intensifies.

“The shortage of CTE teachers in the state is having a ripple effect,” Shim said. “Many high schools are closing CTE programs because they can’t find teachers.”

Institutions across the country have been experiencing shortages for years and are now moving to address the problem as state lawmakers and higher ed officials prioritize workforce development to help meet anticipated labor needs, increase the number of college graduates in their states and keep them—and employers—from moving out.

But meanwhile, the closures of high school CTE programs are leading to fewer students pursuing CTE in college and, as a result, more high-paying, high-demand industries are struggling to find skilled trade workers.

And even among the limited number of students who are graduating college with the necessary skills, few are staying in the states where they attended college. Sixty-six percent of graduates of the University of Wyoming, the state’s only public four-year institution, moved to another state after earning their degrees, according to a 2020 survey by McKinsey & Co., a strategy and management consulting firm. This creates a “brain drain,” further widening the gap between CTE instructors and workers.

Rob Hill, instructor of the new course, a CTE consultant for the University of Wyoming and president of SkillsUSA Wyoming, the state chapter of a national CTE education association, said the new course, which will introduce students to various employment options in CTE teaching, is “really critical” for more than just filling a staffing shortage as statewide efforts to diversify the economy also depend on skilled workers.

“Our Legislature, our governor, our state superintendent, our economic development people and our large trade associations have been really behind it,” Hill said. “As we look at new emerging technologies and everything—from advanced manufacturing to wind energy—that requires an advanced level of training, that’s on the frontier for our CTE folks.”

A Pilot Model

There are currently 22 students enrolled in the first semester of the course, half of them community college students and the other half private sector workers. All the current participants are attending the class tuition-free thanks to grants from local business partners and individual donors.

Although the course is predominantly online, due to the sizable distance between the University of Wyoming and the seven participating community colleges, two on-site coaches—one who specializes in high school CTE and one in postsecondary instruction—are assigned to each campus.

“We understand that many folks who are interested in CTE are those for whom hands-on experience has been much more productive than learning in a traditional school setting,” Shim said. “The two on-site mentors are staying closely connected in person with students so that we don’t lose them in an online environment.”

Hill described the on-site coaches as “a safety net and mentor” who will help coordinate in-person meetings with administrators, business partners and teachers who are doing the kinds of CTE instruction the students are learning about so they can see the work live in action.

“We’ve got a statewide problem, and we created a local solution by empowering local people to work with us,” he said.

No ‘Silver Bullet’

Alisha Hyslop, senior director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education, or ACTE, said many colleges elsewhere are facing similar CTE teacher shortages.

“With everywhere I go and everybody I talk to, this is one of the No. 1 concerns they raise, and it doesn’t seem to matter what state they’re in or what type of institution it is,” Hyslop said.

She noted that ACTE has witnessed a variety of attempts to respond to the need. Some colleges are asking local employers who depend on the institutions as employee pipelines to provide part-time instructors, she said. Others are enlisting current upper-level students to teach introductory-level courses. Others still are capping the number of students allowed to enroll in CTE courses to match the number of available instructors.

“We have definitely not found a silver bullet to solving this problem,” Hyslop said. “If we had one, we’d be shouting it from the rooftops.”

Although the efforts to reduce staffing shortages vary, it’s widely believed that the root cause for the dearth is a lack of competitive salaries.

Growing demand for workers in CTE industry sectors such as health care and advanced manufacturing are leading company executives to poach potential instructors with salary offers that dwarf the amount they’d earn by teaching.

“Many of the colleges that we work with are struggling to find cybersecurity faculty, or even adjuncts, because they can make three or four times as much working in an actual job,” Hyslop said.

Sometimes, the benefit of better work-life balance and schedule flexibility associated with college instruction can win candidates over, but often it’s not enough to outweigh the paycheck, she said.

John Fink, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, added that community college enrollment, particularly in short-term, skill-based programs, has grown post-pandemic.

“It’s particularly challenging in rural areas and at smaller colleges where whole programs might rely on having that one or those two core faculty members,” Fink said. “When those folks retire or move on, that can be really existential for certain CTE programs.”

Hill, the Wyoming consultant, said the problem has also intensified as existing instructors age out of the workforce. According to 2023 data from the Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board, the median age of CTE instructors in the state is 52, and the average retirement age is 62. The trend is similar nationally.

“It’s been several decades since we’ve seen a sufficient number of young teachers entering the profession to offset the age of our teachers,” he said. “So consequently, today we find ourselves looking at … a wave of retirements in the next seven to 10 years.”

Holding Out Hope

Despite the bleak outlook, CTE advocates aren’t losing hope. Amy Williams, former state director of CTE and dual enrollment in Montana, said state higher ed officials and college and university board members are aware of the problem. But sometimes it can feel like too large a hill for them to climb.

“If it was a salary difference of 20 percent, I think that higher ed could rise to meet the challenge. That’s a whole different budget number than tripling someone’s salary,” she said. “The economics of it get really challenging really quickly.”

Williams, who is now executive director of National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, trusts that where state funding can’t meet higher ed needs, industry investments will.

“I think it’s just going to be like supply-side economics … The pressure has to get so high for people to do it,” she said.

In the meantime, Williams believes Wyoming’s program will be productive because it approaches a largely untapped population of potential CTE instructors—current students.

“When you look at a student that’s doing a one-year certificate of applied science, they might be aware of what opportunities are in advanced manufacturing, but they might be totally unaware that they could transition that into teaching,” she said. “Wyoming is giving the people who are in the best position to consider CTE instruction as a career change all the information, tools and equipment they need to look at what comes next.”

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