Tackling the Skills Gap

In yesterday’s article, we introduced the topic of the ever-growing skills gap. The skills gap exacerbates the problem of a declining labor force, and it hurts workers, companies, economies, and societies. But what can be done?

Education and training programs must be developed to keep up with demand, the World Economic Forum says. According to the OECD, “Skills have become the global currency of 21st century economies.” One estimate puts the long-term economic value of raising student performance for just half of one school year at $115 trillion over the working life of a generation of students.

In the past, the knowledge and problem-solving skills students acquired in school would last a lifetime. They still do, but it’s no longer enough. The digital age has brought rapid change to work-related skills, making it extremely difficult for schools to keep up. But schools don’t have to go it alone.

CTE: A Quantifiable Edge

Career and technical education (CTE) programs give students an edge, whether they land a job upon graduation or go on to college. Research compiled by the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) shows that CTE students are significantly more likely than their peers to develop skills in problem solving, project completion, research, communication, time management, and critical thinking. Their motivation and grades improve—and so do their graduation rates.

Many studies support this conclusion. A Fordham Institute study found that CTE students were 21 percent more likely to graduate than others. A Massachusetts study of lower income students also found a 21-point increase in graduation rates for CTE students, who also scored higher on standardized tests. CTE students in Philadelphia are 22 percent more likely to graduate on time than their peers. In a Gates Foundation study, 81 percent of students said that having more learning opportunities relevant to the real world would have helped them to finish high school.

In Oregon, students who earned just half a credit in a CTE class graduated at a rate of 86 percent, nine percentage points higher than the 77 percent state average. Those who earned one full CTE credit or more had a graduation rate of 91.7 percent. A longitudinal national study found that for each CTE course completed during the senior year, a student was 2.1 percent more likely to graduate on time and 1.8 percent less likely to drop out. Florida students who earn at least three hours in a certification program have a graduation rate of 95.99 percent, and 81.6 percent are employed or enrolled in post-secondary education after graduating.

CTE produces students who are not only career-ready, but also college-ready. More than 88 percent continue their education in post-secondary schools. And they’re better prepared when they arrive. According to the Southern Regional Education Board, 80 percent of students who take both CTE and college prep courses meet college- and career readiness goals, versus 63 percent of those in purely academic programs.

Industry Certification: Real-Life Results

CTE statistics are impressive, but they don’t tell the whole story. When schools offer students not just career-related courses, but industry-recognized certification, they garner a stellar reputation among employers, who often seek out the schools to fill jobs. Students gain a sense of self-confidence that enables them to succeed in whatever path of life they choose. Denise Spence, the IT programs manager and lead technology teacher at Dunbar High School in Ft. Myers, Florida has seen certification brighten the prospects of her students since the school started a Certiport program in 2004.

“They have more of a sense of purpose. They know they aren’t just getting an ‘A’ in a course, but a skill they can use to get a real job,” Spence said. Graduation rates have improved under the program, which enrolls about 350 students a year in certification programs for Microsoft Office, Adobe, and Autodesk. The school has a high level of low-income students, yet most go on to college or the military after graduation.

“They send us letters saying, ‘Thank you so much for what you offered at Dunbar. I was able to level up into a better position in the military because of my training in technology,’” Spence said.

Like many schools with certification programs, Dunbar faculty have developed relationships with local employers, who contact the school for help. “They reach out to us now. We’ve put our name out there as an academy for technical excellence,” Spence said. Students with certificate competency allow employers to maximize the value of their technology investment. Employers are often amazed at certificate holders’ abilities.

At Pacific Tech Construction in Kelso, Washington, Ashley Masters, a Certiport Microsoft Office-certified high school student, taught accountants how to use formulas in Excel spreadsheets. Usually, when controller Diana Pafford hires people for Ashley’s position, they can’t do much in Excel beyond adding data in a column. But Ashley taught staff pivot tables and conditional formatting. “It’s highly unusual to have a student do this type of work. We were very blessed to have her here at the company,” Pafford said.

Ashley, who earned a total of nine Microsoft Office certifications, says the certifications have changed her life, giving her the confidence to pursue a four-year degree at Central Washington University, where she is studying business finance. Enterprising students can use their certificates to start a company of their own. That’s what Acquille Dunkley did after gaining certifications in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Now a student at Savannah College of Art and Design, he is still running the design company he started in high school. He has moved into enterprise work, creating hundreds of apparel mockup images for a clothing line in Atlanta and phone case designs for an accessories company in New York.

As graduating certificate students carry their valuable skills into the workforce, they tend to out-earn their peers. A study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce studied both men and women who obtain career-related certificates and compared them to peers who earned associate and bachelor’s degrees. The study found that men with certificates in IT earned more than 72 percent of men with an associate degree and 54 percent more than those with a bachelor’s degree. Women with IT-related certificates earned more than 75 percent of those with an associate degree and more than 64 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree.

It’s not just a technology edge. Women with certificates in office work earned more than 54 percent of those with an associate degree and more than 41 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. Men with certificates in technologies earned more than 65 percent of men with an associate degree and more than 48 percent of men with a bachelor’s degree.

Employers in construction, healthcare, marketing, and many other fields hire students with certificates, but those with digital technology skills are often in greatest demand. For certificate holders, that’s great news. IT jobs pay more than two-and-a-half times the average national wage, and the sector is expected to generate an additional 488,500 jobs through 2024. Digital technology certifications really are the way of the future.

Looking to empower students in your state, district, or school with certified credentials? Learn more about Certiport’s portfolio of certification programs here.