The New CTE: Let’s Talk About Skills

Jessica Kannam, AYPF Policy Research Assistant

Skills was the buzzword at a recent AYPF forum. On October 20th, the American Youth Policy Forum and MDRC hosted a Capitol Hill forum Employer-Driven Innovations in CTE: Promise, Practice, & Opportunities for Policy, which presented leading research on Career and Technical Education (CTE) and analysis of evolving workforce needs that have influenced the development of CTE strategies. The panelists represented a variety of perspectives. Specifically, with experience in research, industry, and high-quality career and technical education programming and implementation at the city, state, and national levels.

But what do we mean by skills? And why were skills such a large topic of conversation with regard to CTE?

Mary Visher, Senior Associate at MDRC, noted that one primary reason why there’s been a resurgence of CTE in recent years is due to a documented skills shortage. The “skills gap” discussion encompasses various issues, one of which is the skill shortages experienced in specific industries. Many employers report difficulty in finding qualified applicants, especially in certain sectors like computer and mathematical occupations, architecture and engineering, and healthcare. A report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Group highlights that not only are there expected to be millions of manufacturing jobs unfilled, but these shortages will impact growth, profitability, and innovation in the sector. Additionally, employers have expressed the value of and need for skills like communication, critical thinking, and teamwork, often termed soft skills, 21st century skills or employer-desired skills (check out my colleague Carinne Deed’s blog which dives more deeply into the language we use around this), that are applicable to all fields of work.

Furthermore, an important part of this conversation is context. Industry needs differ depending on the region, state, and locality. It became clear at the forum that the CTE programs represented carefully took into consideration the needs of the communities in which they were functioning to create programming that more fully prepared their students for the skills needed in the workforce. Visher also highlighted how CTE programs differ to the degree in which they are driven by employer and student needs. Let’s explore how the three panelists and their respective programs have identified the need in their communities, defined the skills and competencies necessary for success, and imbedded them into their programming through collaboration between the education and workforce sectors.

IBM and P-TECH Schools

P-TECH, co-developed by IBM, is an innovative school model of grades 9 through 14 that blends high school, community college, and workforce training. In six years or less, students graduate with a high school diploma, an industry recognized Associates degree, and the skills needed to enter the workforce. Stanley Litow, President Emeritus, IBM International Foundation and Vice President Emeritus, IBM Corporate Citizenship explained that P-TECH was designed to respond to the skills crisis. Similar to other employers, IBM had many job openings, but could not find candidates with the appropriate skills to fill the positions. These jobs Litow termed as “new collar,” rather than white- or blue-collar jobs. New collar jobs require a certain set of skills rather than a certain degree. These skills encompass various competencies that are necessary for students to grow and advance professionally.

Litow explained that while there were numerous educational reform efforts during the recession in New York City, few of the reforms were intentionally connecting education to opportunities in the economy and workforce. Litow emphasized the importance of skills that are essential to success in the workplace being imbedded within and developed as part of education systems, rather than distinct from it. Thus, the P-TECH model sought to address the skills gap and low college completion in an economy that increasingly requires postsecondary education and training, with particular focus on populations underrepresented in college. The first P-TECH school opened in 2011 in Brooklyn, NYC, and there are 70 P-TECH schools across 6 states and by 2018 there will be 100 P-TECH schools. P-TECH schools are open enrollment and have produced positive student outcomes. The P-TECH design process begins with Skills Mapping, in which the employer partner, the school district, and local colleges work together to identify the skills and competencies necessary in key job areas and align it with the schools’ curriculum to ensure continuity between education and the labor market demand.

YouthForce NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana)

Youthforce NOLA is a career readiness initiative designed as a system-specific response to the regional context and the growth of their student population. Cate Swinburn, President of YouthForce NOLA, explained that while there will be over 70,000 new well-paying middle skills jobs in the region over the next ten years, many companies are planning to recruit employees from outside New Orleans, despite increasing achievements by students in the city.

Through collaboration with partners across education, government, and business, YouthForce NOLA decided upon three main goals: for students to gain job-specific skills and industry based credentials, have the opportunity to participate in work experience, and develop soft skills. The program intentionally identified what career pathways and sectors would have the greatest economic impact, and through the city-wide economic plan Prosperity NOLA, identified skills crafts, health sciences, and technology as three prominent industry clusters.

Swinburn explained that in trying to create a measurable target for soft skills development, to gauge success, they realized that all of their partners defined soft skills differently. This led to an effort among both K-12 education and workforce partners to define what skills were necessary for students. After reviewing national research, YouthForce NOLA connected with MHA Labs to create six soft skills building blocks that are now used and aligned across partners.

California Community Colleges

In California, workforce policy transformed from an “afterthought to a policy priority.” Van Ton-Quinlivan, Vice Chancellor of Workforce and Digital Futures at California Community Colleges, explained the extensive work the community college system has done to prepare students for the workforce and provide pathways that result in careers with labor market value. Ton-Quinlivan emphasized the importance of CTE in California given that 6.3 million job openings are predicted between 2010 and 2020, and that 30% of job openings in California will require ‘some’ college or an Associate’s degree, and not a Bachelor’s degree. Additionally, she emphasized how the evolving nature of industry and the economy requires consistent reskilling and up-skilling among employees.

Tackling a state as diverse as California has its challenges, given the 114 community colleges, 7 regional economies, and over 2,000 high schools. Ton-Quinlivan explained that, similar to many other states, California had to identify regional economies as well as which industries manifest within those economies. Given that the majority of sub-economies prioritized healthcare, information and communications technology and digital media, and advanced manufacturing, the community college system and their partners worked to create career pathways aligned with that market need.

To promote collaboration, colleges within the system were challenged to solve employer programs together. When employer advisory boards were consistently communicating that candidates lacked the essential skills necessary for their job openings, ten community colleges worked together to create the New World of Work. This initiative identified the top ten 21st Century skills necessary, including adaptability, digital fluency, and self-awareness, that employers can now badge students for when they demonstrate those competencies during their internships. Ton-Quinlivan explained that the initiative has sparked excitement in the employer community and is currently being evaluated by MDRC.

It is clear that through collaboration across education and employer partners, the needs and demands of both students and employers can be met. These CTE programs intentionally engage stakeholders, identify the skills necessary to be successful, and incorporate skill development in their programming.

To learn more about the forum and the programs featured, visit AYPF’s event resource page.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.