Employment-focused education for "middle-skill" occupations is becoming increasingly relevant. More than 850,000 K-12 students in the U.S. are classified as "vocational," which encompasses CTE fields and makes up just around 2% of total students. The cost to educate these students is nearly $14,000 or 20-40% greater than that of traditional academic instruction. In recent years, approximately $13 billion has been spent annually by federal, state and local governments to support youth-focused vocational education systems across the U.S., with federal funding constituting only about 4-8% percent of all state and local spending.1 This is in addition to the $16 billion post-high school trade and technical school-industry.

New Students and New Career Paths

Higher education is increasingly seen as a requisite in today's job market. Yet there are profoundly troubling signs that the U.S. is failing to meet its obligation to prepare millions of young adults. In an era in which education has never been more important to economic success, the U.S. has fallen behind many other nations in educational attainment and achievement. Within the U.S. economy, there is also growing evidence of a "skills gap" in which many young adults lack the skills needed for many jobs that pay a middle-class wage. Simultaneously, there has been a dramatic decline in the ability of adolescents and young adults to find work. Indeed, the percentage of teens and young adults who have jobs is now at the lowest level since World War II.

As a result, the demographics of the "typical student" have changed and college students are no longer just 18-to-22-year-olds. They may be single working mothers in their 40s or grandparents in their 60s. They may seek traditional degrees or be part of the fastest growing career track-those pursuing career certificates. Significantly, the National Center for Education Statistics notes that 36% of today's college students are over age 25, a group that is expected to grow by 20 percent between 2010 and 2020.2 As norms of age and income become obsolete, there is a need for more customization and flexibility in delivery methods to meet the needs of nontraditional students.

Just as students' backgrounds have changed, so have their career paths. Today, a person's first job no longer becomes a lifelong career, and students need to be more versatile than in previous generations. According to leading experts, between 60 and 70% of the jobs required 20 years from now do not exist today, a dramatic-yet-intuitive statistic given the countless number today's new careers  that have only emerged over the past decade including in social media, renewable energy systems, cloud computing, and data science.

A New Marketplace

According to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, the U.S. economy will create some 47 million job openings over the 10-year period ending in 2018. Nearly two-thirds of these jobs will require at least some post-secondary education. Therefore, applicants without post-high school education will fill 36 percent of the job openings, or just half the percentage of jobs they held in the early 1970s. Moreover, the Center projects that 14 million openings will be filled by people with an associate's degree or occupational certificate. Many of those will be in "middle-skill" occupations such as electrician, construction manager, dental hygienist, paralegal and police officer. These jobs often have higher salaries than jobs held by those with bachelor's' degrees. In fact, 27 percent of people with post-secondary licenses or certificates-credentials short of an associate's degree-earn more than the average bachelor's degree recipient. There will also be a huge number of job openings in so-called blue-collar fields like construction, manufacturing, and natural resources, which will provide nearly 8 million openings, an estimated 2.7 of which will require a postsecondary credential.

Given the dynamic nature of the marketplace, it is more important than ever for educators to provide employment-focused education.  As students look to train-up and acquire practical and marketable skills, educators must respond in kind by adjusting their methods to be more learner-focused. Ideally, the future of education will blend online and traditional learning experiences and be flexible, so that the material is available to the student on his/her own time and teaching and engagement is saved for the classroom.

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Resources: Photo credit. (1) Vocational Education (2) NCES Fast Facts