Career education encourages students to think big, go far

Without a skill-focused course in robotics, a student may never realize their dream of becoming an engineer. Opportunities such as this could lead to competitions, titles and connections in a career field that these students otherwise would have been unaware of. Today, approximately 33 percent of students at Berkeley High School are enrolled in a career technical education course. For decades, the educational community has rejected career education, formerly known as vocational education, because of the historical perception that it tracks low-performing students away from college preparation. We are now realizing on a national, state and local level, however, what we lost by eliminating hands-on education that is tied to high-demand, high-wage careers.

Nationally, 55 million new job opportunities are predicted to arise by the year 2020. Thirty-five percent will require a Bachelor’s degree, and 30 percent will require some college or an associate degree. According to former U.S. secretary of labor Robert Reich, those students who may not be suited for a traditional college experience could succeed in a “world-class technical and vocational educational system. There are a lot of jobs that are out there that are technical jobs. These jobs pay quite well and there is a scarcity of good people to do them.”

Students preparing for college and careers must master core academic subjects such as reading, writing and math. They also need to be competent in science and technology for the new global economy, as well as grounded in humanities and social sciences to be a well-rounded contributor to society. The profile of a college- and career-ready graduate encompasses competency in technology, critical thinking and problem-solving, along with skills that include teamwork and ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions.

To help realize this vision, Berkeley High School has entered into partnerships to create robust career pathways that are enhanced by on-the-job internship opportunities. These strategic partners will work directly with Berkeley High School and Berkeley Adult School. The Berkeley Fire Fighters Association is working with the Fire Science course; the Berkeley Police Association with the Law and Social Justice program; Biotech Partners with the BioTech Academy; and, most recently, the Carpenters Union Local 713 and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees with the new Carpentry Shop and Maker Space — just to name a few.  All these pathways teach contextualized math, science, technology and literacy while preparing students for living-wage jobs and the pursuit of further postsecondary education and certificates.

Students may think they want to become a nurse, entrepreneur, graphic artist, computer game designer, firefighter, police officer or bridge builder but will have no idea how their traditional classes will help them reach their goal. Career education helps to ignite their passions, engage their minds and apply their skills.

Schools across the nation should implement career education programs, because strong career education provides transferable skills and instills an understanding that students, like adults, change their minds. In addition, students exploring a career pathway also learn teamwork, critical thinking, project management and professionalism — skills that are required in our current society and job markets.

Students who enter a career pathway early in their education will find choices they never considered. The goal of career technical education is not to lead students to college or to track them into a job; it’s to ensure that all students are aware of their choices and understand how to make informed decisions about their future. With career exploration and education embedded in middle and high schools, students learn to navigate their future with clear expectations of what they need to achieve their goals, whether that be transitioning directly into the workforce post-graduation, balancing work and higher education or becoming a full-time student.

With strong career exploration and education facilitated by programs like the one we are implementing in Berkeley, students across the nation can dream big and go far.

Julie Sinai is the chief strategy officer at LifeLong Medical Care and a member of the BUSD Career Technical Education Advisory Committee.