Introducing young people to CTE

What is happening to CTE?

Today, we are a nation that no longer works with its hands the way it did in the past. People no longer work on their cars like they used to, thanks to their increasing complexity of vehicles and the proliferation of quick-service businesses. We’re less likely to do home repairs and improvements, thanks to a lack of skills and easy access to handymen. We even cook less, as seen by the fact that restaurants and bars represent a larger percentage of our food dollar than grocery stores.

This trend extends to recreation, with fewer hunting and other outdoor activities like camping; it even includes sports, with fewer young people participating in organized activities like football and baseball.

Why is this an issue?

Because CTE, and many of the occupations it serves, is so well-suited to those who enjoy working with their hands, from traditional CTE-oriented careers such as carpentry and welding to others like healthcare, engineering, and even the performing arts. (And, I’ll admit that “working with your hands” is an imprecise description. Maybe it’s people who enjoy physical activity? Who like making this happen? Who enjoy a visceral sense of accomplishment from physically completing tasks? It’s all part of a whole.)

One of my great regrets is that I was never exposed to CTE when I was in school. I was never a car guy; never got to do any home repairs with my dad. But I was a musician, and I loved cracking open a computer case and swapping out memory, drives, and graphic cards. I think I could have found a place, and a passion, through CTE if given a chance.

I was thinking about all this over the weekend after painting a room at home. The taping, the edging, the rolling, all physical activities that just felt good. And the sense of accomplishment at the end, stepping back and seeing the results of your work, is just so fulfilling.

It makes me wonder: If young people are not given the opportunity to do anything with their hands, save for typing on a keyboard or holding a controller, how can they find their way to the opportunities presented by CTE?

How do you find CTE opportunities?

I know that many schools, particularly those that draw from multiple sending schools, have outreach programs to reach younger people and encourage enrollment. However, in my experience, those activities primarily involve presentations, and don’t often involve an opportunity for students to feel the visceral thrill of doing something with their own two hands.

I wonder if there are ways to give students that first-step opportunity. Maybe offering students a tour of a CTE school, with several hands-on activities incorporated into the visit? Maybe an after-school club in the middle grades that exposes them to careers and hands-on action? (A service club or career club?) Maybe some sort of summer camp housed by the technical high school that leverages existing resources to connect them to all kinds of activities?

I would very much like to see more young people find their way to CTE – and I have to believe that letting them feel the hammer in their hands, so to speak, is one piece of the puzzle.

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of the National Center for College and Career (NC3T) ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance, and tools. These strategies help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.