Career Technical Education In The U.S.


Career technical education (CTE) refers to the practice of teaching skill-based careers to students at various levels of schooling (Rabren et al., 2014). CTE can also be defined as a multi-year sequence of training in particular courses, integrating technical, academic, and occupational knowledge to equip learners with specific hands-on skills to handle specific jobs. The National Centre for Education Statistics (NCES) defines CTE as programs (at high school/ secondary level) that focus on knowledge and skills necessary for specific fields of work or jobs (Snyder and Dillow, 2013). It primarily applies to students enrolled in the middle, high school, and tertiary institutions. CTE differs from the traditional university education that majorly focuses on theory rather than practical skills. Although it includes some theory, the latter is found in the introductory learning sessions meant to usher in the intended technical skills. As such, the CTE instructors do not dwell much on textbook content but pay attention to practice and improvement of skills needed in the job market. 

After completing CTE courses, students are awarded various certifications acknowledging them on the skills they have acquired. However, this does not limit the learners to any career path based on the skills they have been equipped with. Instead, students can opt to pursue courses of their choice in community colleges or universities (Rabren et al., 2014). 

This article looks at major issues to do with technical career education, ranging from the reason behind its introduction to an analysis of how institutions offering CTE operate. Further, the essay discusses 16 distinct clusters of CTE and the advantages and disadvantages of CTE. 

Reason for the emergence of CTE 

CTE was a collective brainchild of leaders and scholars concerned with the rate at which the national workforce had begun losing its global competitiveness. They identified the urge to improve the nature of education to equip learners with the relevant skills that fit the market demand of the workforce in the 21st century. One of the bodies that precipitated the need for CTE was Sonoma County’s Innovation Council in 2009, which produced an economic development report, indicating the need for prioritizing educational achievement and career training (Snyder and Dillow, 2013). Employers also let out their dissatisfaction over the gap between the graduates’ skills and the requirements for particular industries. In a bid to address these issues, various jurisdictions within the US came up with policies to establish CTE programs preceding them by adequate funding to make the venture achievable. 

CTE institutions

Career technical education is offered in technical institutions offering courses either across all the 16 clusters/tracks or a section of them. These institutions are equipped with modern equipment that helps learners to relate classroom teaching with real-world occurrences. An example of a CTE institution is Cherry Creek Innovation Campus, which offers various courses ranging from automobile programs to health science, among many others. The campus provides learning opportunities to high school students in three major categories; those who want to go to college, those looking for skills to help them join the workforce after high school, and those who may not be sure of what they want to do after high school. Cherry Creek primarily enrolls students from within its locality who are pursuing diplomas in their respective high schools. Green River College is another college that offers career technical education to high school students in fields such as engineering, aviation, computer science, communication, etc. The college stands out due to its up-to-date programs facilitated by the program advisory committees. Each career and technical education program at the college has its advisory committee, consisting of the college’s employees and employers from industries related to the program. The committee proposes changes to the programs offered in line with the dynamism in the real business world. 

Unlike Cherry Creek and Green River, which are standalone institutions, high schools in most states have CTE incorporated into their programs. And since one high school may not be capable of offering all the 16 clusters, students may enroll in nearby high schools to pursue the course of their wish. It is important to note that regulations governing CTE institutions in the US vary from one state to another. 


The 16 Clusters of Career Technical Education

1. Agriculture, food, and natural resources

Students prepare to work in the fields such as plant science, animal science, food processing, and production and environmental science, among others. The agriculture cluster helps students understand the sustainability of human life across the world. Learners also tend to learn about safe foods for human consumption and steps that they can take to make the unsafe food safe. People in this field can also work closely with the public and the government to recommend the best farming and food production practices. Students can work indoors as soil testers and other laboratory jobs or outdoors as inspectors, farmers, researchers, administrators, etc. 

2. Business management and administration 

Business courses are some of the most dominant programs in CTE. This is because they have skills that make students versatile, in that they can work in almost every industry. Indeed, investment in any industry requires management which is a skill taught in this cluster. Business programs teach students key universal skills such as organizing, planning, evaluating functions, and directing the entire team in the industry to achieve its target objectives. Students also acquire knowledge and skills to help them start and run a business of their own. Common career paths in business courses include human resources, information management, administrative support, and operations management. 

3. Education and training

Prepares students to work in academic institutions. The emphasis of this cluster is to help students think and work in a manner intended to improve the public education system. However, education programs do not make one qualified to become a teacher; they act as the stepping stone for pursuing teaching after that. Graduates of education and training clusters can secure opportunities in corporations that invest in education and other related services. They may also become suppliers of education materials since they are conversant with the dynamics in the education sector. The standard career paths include support services, training/teaching, and administrative support. 

4. Government and public administration

This track deals with working and executing government functions at various levels of governance. Students may be taught how the local, state, and federal governments work and the functions of the respective office in those levels of government. Topics may include tax education, budgetary, and the justice system. Students who aspire to work in government at any time become aware of its activities and choose wisely where they would like to be attached. Students with a passion for politics also benefit immensely from skills in this cluster. Common career paths include revenue and taxation, national security, planning, governance, regulation, Foreign Service, and public management and administration.  

5. Hospitality and tourism

This program equips students with skills in hospitality management and business opportunities for investors available in the industry. The hospitality sector also has numerous ethical issues and principles, which students must be aware of before joining the field. Tourism helps students develop an interest in tours and travel and the issues concerning tourists who are the key stakeholders in the tourism sector. Learners gain experience managing entities such as motels, hotels, inns, and tourist attractions. Career paths include travel and tourism, attractions and amusements sites management, the lodging sector, and restaurant/café services. 

6. Information technology

Students learn about the development, design, implementation, support, repair, and management of information systems. They study everything related to information technology and how they can use it to help their companies become competitive tech-wise. Skills from this course also make one versatile, for they can work in any organization that intends to incorporate technology use in its activities. CTE graduates can assume IT roles in organizations, who with on-the-job learning can rise quickly through ranks to take senior positions such as Chief Information Officer. 

7. Logistics, distribution, and transportation

This pathway deals with the tracking and moving of inventory from one place to another. Students learn how to plan, organize, manage and transport people or even goods from one place to another, using means such as water, rail, air, road, and pipeline. Logistics may also include managing all activities involved in the infrastructure sectors. Skills in logistics are helpful in every organization, just like management skills. For instance, every organization engages in the procurement of items at one time or another. Such procured items call for logistical skills to ensure that they are delivered safely, correctly, and on time. Common career paths include:

  • Mobile equipment and facility maintenance.
  • Management services.
  • Logistics services.
  • Transport operations.
  • Warehouse and distribution centers.
  • Transportation planning and management. 

8. Sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)

This cluster makes students suitable to work as engineers and technologists. It involves an array of creative occupations such as vehicle design which call for rigorous training. There is a very high demand for CTE STEM graduates, earning huge salaries due to the low competition. When CTE graduates in this cluster pursue degrees alongside their technical skills, they qualify for computer application and machinery opportunities. Common career paths are science and mathematics and engineering and technology.

9. Marketing, sales, and services

Students in this cluster learn about things to do with customer acquisition and retention. The track helps students gain skills in customer service, sales, and marketing. They are trained to strive with the available resources and knowledge to bring about a positive and desirable customer experience. Sales and marketers are key to any industry that counts customers in its work plan. They are employable in almost every field, including manufacturing, processing, agriculture, etc. 

10. Manufacturing

This curriculum involves all the processes, procedures, and materials concerned with the mass production of items. The learners get the skills needed to produce a particular intermediate/final product, paying attention to both the products and production methods rather than the final product. Manufacturers operate under strict regulations to ensure that they do not produce substandard products that may harm their users. Career paths in manufacturing include quality assurance, production, maintenance installation, and repair, etc. 

11. Law, public safety, and security

Training in this program deals with legal-based occupations and emergency services. Students who want to venture into criminal justice and law enforcement in the future can benefit immensely from this cluster, as all matters surrounding the law are taught here. Common career paths include correction and legal services, protective services, and security management. 

12. Human services 

This pathway includes areas such as drug rehabilitation, social work, and social services. Human services are similar to health services in that they deal with the wellbeing of humans. However, they differ in that human services seeks to have people benefit emotionally, and the people involved must be passionate about people. Career paths include counseling services, personal care services, family and community services, etc. 

13. Health Science

It is among the most popular clusters in CTE. It deals with managing, planning, and offering therapeutic services to people. Students are taught about health care and the need for human wellness, and they get prepared for future jobs as patient care technicians or nurses. Career paths include health informatics, support services, biotechnology research, and therapeutic services. 

14. Finance

Students in this cluster understand revenue, profit margins, cash, and expenditure matters. Skills gained here are ideal for students wishing to pursue further education in accounting. Learners tend to know how to handle bookkeeping on a large scale and basics in accounting. Career paths include insurance, banking services, accounting, securities investment, and business finance. 

15. Construction and architecture

It helps students learn about issues to do operations, preconstruction, and construction. They also learn the principles of drafting and designing structures. Learners here do not qualify to become architects or constructors but can work with them in the field or the offices. Common career paths include maintenance/ operation, construction, and designing. 

16. Arts, audio/visual technology, and communications 

This cluster prepares students to work with communication and production companies. These skills relate to film production, journalism, broadcasting, visual arts, performing arts, lighting technology, telecommunications, etc. Career paths in this cluster include printing technology, visual arts, performing arts, technology, and film.  

Advantages of CTE

Higher rate of high school graduation

It is estimated that more than 94% of CTE students graduate from high school (Bishop and Mane, 2004). This is as opposed to the percentage of other students who do not enroll for CTE. The high graduation rate is linked to students’ choice to engage in a different career path rather than dwelling on conventional in-class learning. The CTE programs offer them a unique experience earned from engaging in divergent learning. This ensures that students are not bored or do not fall into temptations of dropping out of school, which is a common phenomenon with the traditional education system (Gean, 2010). The CTE, which also offers students learning freedom, makes them make the right choices, such as joining the workforce and enrolling for post-secondary education in their areas of specialization. 

CTE students achieve improved grades

Unlike in the regular education system, where students are tested and rated in standard subjects, CTE ensures that students are tested and placed in what they like most. This has brought about a perspective change where students categorized as weak perform exemplarily well in their CTE courses (Bishop and Mane, 2004). Good grades inspire students to further invest in their courses and induce confidence lost when school authorities deem them foolish, based on an in-class grading system. 

High career demand 

According to most job market analysts, it was estimated that there would be more than 50 million job opportunities that CTE students can fill. Of the 50 million, more than 15 million never existed, for they were created to address the rising demand in the workforce. This means that CTE graduates have job opportunities at their disposal, which are easier to secure than their fellow high school graduates without CTE experience (Gean, 2010). CTE graduates also earn skills that can enable them to employ themselves, such as health care entrepreneurship and welding technology, among others (Bishop and Mane, 2004). CTE graduates can employ themselves far, much easier since they do not need a huge capital to start a small enterprise. 

CTE students have a satisfying schooling life 

It is estimated that almost 90% of both current CTE students and CTE graduates are satisfied with their lives. This minimizes the risk of mental illnesses common among high school learners (Gean, 2010). High school students are always at a greater risk of mental sickness due to the stress associated with a rigid curriculum and a result-only-oriented education system. On the other hand, students enrolled for CTE undergo a better learning experience characterized by engaging learning where students get an opportunity to participate in various activities. Therefore, these students are mostly satisfied with what they do and what they become in the future. 

Induces a sense of life direction into students

In some cases, high school students are not sure of what they want to become after graduating. In addition, those who have an idea of what they want to become in the future realize that they cannot achieve their dreams and have to rethink their future. Such students cultivate a clear path for their future when they enroll in CTE courses since it helps them identify what they want (Gean, 2010). Such choices include whether they choose to join college/university or otherwise venture into the workforce. 

Disadvantages of CTE

A very demanding schedule

CTE programs are designed to help one become ready to be absorbed into the workforce as quickly as possible (Bishop and Mane, 2004). CTE institutions are forced to have tight schedules and rigorous training to complete their programs in time. For those students pursuing both CTE and high school diplomas concurrently, the program schedule is tighter and most engaging for them. These tight schedules may culminate in the absence of breaks between semesters, making it possible for students to not invest adequate time in one of the programs (Ruhland, 2001). 

Minimal adaptability

CTE equips students with skills and expertise for one specific job. As a result, students are not typically conversant with various disciplines to help them explore other avenues alongside their main career path. As a result, whenever an industry experiences some changes, these people are unlikely to adapt easily to such changes (Ruhland, 2001). Studying many subjects may help one handle problems within their work, which does not necessarily call for knowledge related to that field. For example, a technical fault in a manufacturing industry may need computer literacy skills to solve. 

Saturated market

Although there has not yet been an excessive number of CTE graduates, it is predicted that the technical skills field will be saturated in the coming few years (Ruhland, 2001). This is based on the current millions of students who enroll and graduate with CTE skills every year, where not all secure a job opportunity immediately. 

Lack of a definite curriculum

However beneficial career technical education might have been, enough attention has not yet been given to it as conventional in-class teaching and learning. The relevant authorities are yet to make policies that streamline CTE to accommodate any emerging issue. One such policy is developing a competent and comprehensive curriculum addressing issues such as instructor training to give them additional support. Constant training and subsequent professional development of instructors are not satisfactorily catered for by the current CTE curriculum, which affects their productivity over time.


Bishop, J. H., & Mane, F. (2004). The impacts of career-technical education on high school labor market success. Economics of Education Review, 23(4), 381-402.


Gean, L. M. S. (2010). High school students’ perception of career technical education and factors that influence enrollment in programs at a regional occupational center. Pepperdine University.


Ruhland, S. (2001). Factors Influencing the Turnover and Retention of Minnesota’s Secondary Career and Technical Education Teachers.


Rabren, K., Carpenter, J., Dunn, C., & Carney, J. S. (2014). Actions against poverty: The impact of career technical education. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 37(1), 29-39.


Snyder, T. D., & Dillow, S. A. (2013). Digest of Education Statistics, 2012. NCES 2014-015. National Center for Education Statistics.