Career and technical education programs jump-start students’ professional success.
Joshua Gilbert has learned a lot about hacking lately, and not just because of the news. The 17-year-old senior at Centennial High School in Ellicott City is being taught how to secure networks as well as how to attack them. This is not the high school computer science class of 20 years ago. Gilbert is a student in the Howard County school system’s cybersecurity program. His teachers are industry professionals who have tried to port as much of their experiences into as close of a classroom simulation as possible. He’ll graduate with a certification that can help get his foot in the door working in network support — and he’ll then begin an internship with the National Security Agency.
“Hopefully it’ll build into a career,” Gilbert said. “Cybersecurity and the technology industries are poised for a lot of growth. That seems like a good place to get a lot of money.”
It’s a wise choice for a teenager testing out potential career paths. The cybersecurity and homeland security industries have a large presence in this region, thanks to Fort Meade, the federal government and private contractors.
High school students in our region can now prepare for their future in a variety of other fields as well. Votech, or vocational and technical training, has expanded far beyond the traditional automotive repair and construction trades.
Now known as CTE, or career and technical education, the portfolios of available options in local school systems can prepare students for a broad spectrum of additional professions, including homeland security, information technology, cosmetology, culinary arts and animation—just to name a few.
“The old votech was really only for a few students. Now it’s for all,” says Deb Albert, Anne Arundel County Public School System’s coordinator for career and technology education. “It’s not just training for students who don’t want to go to college. It’s training to give students a jump-start.”
From Votech to CTE
The traditional trades, like working on automobiles or in the construction industry, haven’t faded away whatsoever. They now include additional skills, thanks to computerization and other modern tools. A student who once may have been taught merely to weld, for example, can now learn to use a computerized plasma cutter as well.
In addition, the philosophy is no longer one of teaching students a trade and getting them out the door. That won’t work anymore in today’s economy. Students will earn necessary certifications and licenses, may be set up with internships and apprenticeships, and can receive college credit — all before they’ve received their high school diplomas.
“Whatever they’re doing next, whether it’s going to college, trade school or joining the workforce, I want them to be ready for it,” says Mark Wilding, director of career and technology education for Calvert County Public Schools.
An increasing number of students aren’t just taking the core subjects and then applying to colleges. They’re enrolling in career and technical education and then either taking classes in-house or traveling off-site. Programs that require large and/or expensive equipment are hosted in a technology center. Other programs, like engineering and accounting, are available in the high schools. As with the other trades, these subjects ready students for jobs that require less than a four-year degree or put them further ahead on career paths that require additional education.
In Prince George’s County, certain fields can only be taken at specific high schools—which have as few as two and as many as 17 programs, depending on the size of the school. Interested students can seek to transfer to those schools.
At the Howard County Applications and Research Laboratory, which began in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a home for agriculture, horticulture, automotive and construction, signs now point students to classrooms for programs such as hotel and restaurant management, biotechnology, aerospace and visual communications.
Enrollment is high. At least 1,200 students come to the building. The most popular fields with students are health, including programs for allied health, nursing assistants and emergency medical technicians; automotive; and cybersecurity. This is the first year that construction is at capacity. That’s a good thing—a large company headquartered in Columbia recently emailed the construction management program, expressing interest in having young talent sent their way. “The cost of college is prohibitive for a lot of students. They’re looking for other options,” says Natalie Belcher, a career and technical education instructional facilitator in Howard County. “We don’t offer programs unless we feel comfortable that the future employment opportunities are there.”
From CTE to the workforce
Career and technical educators say they are training their students for high-skill, high-wage, high-demand careers. Even those specializing in construction can learn how to be project managers, instead of starting off as rookie carpenters and hoping to work their way up.
“We’re preparing kids for what they’re actually going to need,” Wilding said. “So when they enter an industry, besides a certification, they’ll have knowledge of the latest and greatest trends and will be more likely to be hired, be successful and move up in their job.”
Eric Leizear graduated from Calvert’s automotive program in 2015. His school helped set him up with a job as a technician at a dealership in Prince Frederick, which in turn entered him into the General Motors program at the Community College of Baltimore County. “It gave me a jump-start to my career,” said Leizear, who’s now 21. “If I didn’t have that, I would be struggling right now.”
Employers are well aware of the pipeline of potential workers. They are involved in the advisory boards that give feedback on the curriculum and instruction. They bring in students as interns and cultivate them as candidates for future positions.
“We have agreements with local unions. If you complete our program, you’re guaranteed admittance into the union,” Wilding said. “Every kid who wants to work, they’re able to find work.”
And students, often with advice from their families, will examine the local and national economies and then see whether a field might be right for them. In southern Prince George’s County, where a new hospital is under construction, students at Friendly High School in Fort Washington can graduate as certified clinical medical assistants and then go directly into working at a doctor’s office, hospital or urgent care facility, and they can choose continue their education.
A’Kyia Thomas has dreamed of becoming a doctor since middle school, inspired in part by fiction—the drama of television show Grey’s Anatomy — but also by cold reality. Her grandfather died from an aneurysm. Her grandmother has cancer.
“I like helping people,” says the 17-year-old senior. “Being in this profession makes me feel like I can help more.” It’s still going to be a long road until Thomas becomes a doctor. But she’s getting a much earlier start than the traditional pre-med student — and learning for free skills her predecessors had to pay to acquire.
By David Greisman
Photos by Dunks Photo