By Jorge Morales-Burnett

With the current administration’s efforts to encourage industry-recognized apprenticeships and technical training, the prospects for the expansion of career and technical education nationwide are growing.

This is great news especially in an economy experiencing low labor force participation rates, and a widened skills gap specifically in middle-skill occupations—those requiring on-the-job training or postsecondary education in forms of associate’s degrees or certifications. While the national economy has reached a state of low unemployment rates and growing job openings, employers have struggled to find qualified workers. As Economy Reporter Andrew Soergel noted, “the data broadly point to a labor market in which employers appear to be more worried about finding qualified talent to fill their record level of openings than they are about shedding existing payrolls.”

Last month, the United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 2353 reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, a 2006 bill that was aimed to expand the quantity and quality of career and technical education by providing federal funds for states to allocate to secondary and postsecondary education—in ways local policymakers see fit.

The goal of Career and Technical Education (CTE) is to prepare students with the technical knowledge and skills that are subject to the academic standards necessary for current or emerging professions. Studies demonstrated that 81% of high school dropouts saw real world learning experiences and a link between school and job prospects as factors that could have encouraged them to remain in school. CTE eliminates the very common question students ask themselves: Why am I learning this? How will this be useful to me?

These educational programs have also shown to be related positively to employment outcomes and wages. Moreover, students are more likely to show improvements in academic persistence—diminishing dropout rates, rising high school rates, and increasing enrollment in postsecondary institutions.

In the State of Texas, the Texas Education Agency reports that students who have taken two or more CTE credits present lower dropout rates, higher rates of graduation, higher attendance rates, and a better performance on standardized tests when compared to the state average. Additionally, the existence of CTE programs in the 2011-2012 school year proved to be cost-effective by bringing $45 million in tuition and fees in savings for students (as a consequence of college credits), and $44 million in contact hour savings to the state.

CTE is no joke. The Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that 8 out of the 10 fastest growing occupations from 2010 to 2040 will be middle-skill professions—not necessarily requiring a four year degree.

H.R. 2353, also known as Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, is a bipartisan bill that raises the role of individual states to allocate funding in terms of the particular needs in their local economies; thus, providing the conditions necessary so students’ skills are more directly translated into employable ones. Given this greater flexibility, states have an opportunity to direct funding according to proven program results.

I have previously described here how direct funding to education programs can be effective when linked to job market performance. The Texas Legislature instituted a Returned-Value Funding Model for the financing of the Texas State Technical College System—a model “built on the concept of aligning the state’s investment in TSTC with the estimated total economic benefit that comes back to the state in increased tax revenue produced by former students.” The new funding formula incentivizes students to be directed not only to programs that match their skills but also to those that can lead them to sectors with greater job demand.

While the CTE bill was previously attempted to be signed into law last year, it was passed with support from both sides of the aisle in the House of Representatives (similar to last month) but was stalled in the Senate due to discussions regarding the role of the Secretary of Education in the program. We are hopeful that the bipartisanship reflected in the House will extend to the Senate as a recognition of the enormous benefits career and technical education has brought to the prospects of our nations’ students.