Career and Technical Education Builds the Skills Employers Need

Participants and mentor of the UW–Madison Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence, also known as PEOPLE, which supports students’ goals of college attendance and completing a degree. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)


December | No. 2-2019

Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs focus on learning and building skills directly related to work and labor market demands, often for a certain sector or occupation.

Previously called vocational education, the new era CTE takes place at the secondary (high school), postsecondary (college), and adult education levels (illustrated in Figure 1). Programs are provided in educational and in real-world settings, often including apprenticeships and on-the-job training.

CTE coursework in high school is associated with increased earnings for those who participate (with variation in size of increase among programs), relative to demographically similar peers.

Studies have found that completing career-focused postsecondary certificates and associate degrees has been associated with large and persistent earnings increases, but the magnitude of benefits varies a lot by field of study and provider institution.

The structure and goals of Career and Technical Education are evolving in response to labor market conditions. Source: Advance CTE: State Leaders Connecting Learning to Work. Used with permission.
The structure and goals of Career and Technical Education are evolving in response to labor market conditions.
Source: Advance CTE: State Leaders Connecting Learning to Work. Used with permission.


The following policy-/practice-related points were made by a group of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers who participated in a recent IRP workshop that examined CTE:[1]

  • Ensuring equitable access to CTE programs is an important goal as programs evolve to embrace high-demand occupations that require postsecondary preparation and risk leaving more disadvantaged students behind.
    • Without intentional efforts to avoid this pitfall, high expectations for CTE program outcomes could incentivize programs to avoid enrolling students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may be perceived as less likely to succeed.
  • Responding to changes in the labor market is a particular challenge in rural areas that have a strong history of CTE programs rooted in industries that are now on the decline.
  • CTE programs must invest in data collection, evidence building, and dissemination of findings if they are to understand the extent to which they are meeting their equity and effectiveness goals.
  • Policymakers (and students) need information to help them distinguish between programs with high, low, or no returns.[2]
IRP Related Research
Webinar: Can Career and Technical Education Improve Student Outcomes? Shaun M. Dougherty, Poverty and the Transition to Adulthood Research Network member
Researcher-Practitioner Evaluation Partnership Project Abstract: Increasing Individuals’ Economic Stability through Massachusetts Career And Technical Education, Shaun M. Dougherty, Daniel Kreisman, and Carrie Conaway (The Researcher-Practitioner Evaluation Partnerships are provided with generous funding to IRP from The JPB Foundation.)
Webinar: Improving Worker Skills and Job Quality Among the Poor, Harry J. Holzer, IRP Affiliate and Poverty, Employment, and Self-Sufficiency Network member
Other Research
Does Career Technical Education Pay? Ann Huff Stevens, Poverty, Employment, and Self-Sufficiency Network member, Michal Kurlaender, and Michel Grosz, EconoFact, May 31, 2019, based on: “Career Technical Education and Labor Market Outcomes: Evidence From California Community Colleges” by Ann Huff Stevens, Michal Kurlaender, and Michel Grosz, Journal of Human Resources, April 2018.
A Paradigm Shift: Four Bold Career Pathway Guarantees for All, Art McCoy, member of the IRP Poverty and Geography Network, Community News, November 27, 2019.
The Effect of Career and Technical Education on Human Capital Accumulation: Causal Evidence from Massachusetts, Shaun M. Dougherty, Education Finance and Policy 13, No. 2 (2018): 119–148.
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service, National Assessment of Career and Technical Education: Final Report to Congress, September, 2014.
Way Station or Launching Pad? Unpacking the Returns to Adult Technical Education, Celeste K. Carruthers and Thomas Sanford, Journal of Public Economics 165 (September 2018): 146–159.
The Impact of Career and Technical Education on Students with Disabilities, Shaun M. Dougherty, Todd Grindal, and Thomas Hehir, Journal of Disability Policy Studies 29, No. 2 (2018): 108–118.
Higher Education and the Opportunity Gap, Isabel V. Sawhill, Brookings Report, October 8, 2013.
CTE Exchange (CTEx), Georgia State University, Georgia Policy Labs, Andre Young School of Policy Studies
For further research resources, see brief endnotes

[1] 2019 Career and Technical Education: Promise and Practice Workshop Agenda.

[2] See “What Do We Know about Career and Technical Education?” Fast Focus No. 38-2019, April 2019; and “Ensuring Equity in Evolving High School Career and Technical Education Policies,” Fast Focus No. 42-2019, August 2019.

Past IRP Features