“It was eye-opening.”
That’s how David Gray, president of the Oklahoma City Federation of Classified Employees and an AFT vice president, characterized a recent visit to Germany, where he and a delegation of AFT leaders toured career and technical education schools; learned from labor, industry and education leaders; and gleaned inspiration for strengthening career and technical education in the United States.
The May 2022 trip demonstrates the AFT’s renewed commitment to CTE, a part of the union’s What Kids and Communities Need campaign. As students continue to face the steep cost of college and inflation challenges family budgets, vocational education is becoming a more and more attractive pathway to a wide range of stable, engaging careers that can start immediately after high school graduation. “From cybersecurity to culinary arts, from aviation and auto and transit tech to healthcare and green jobs,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten, “high-quality CTE programs can equip young people with the knowledge and skills they need for all these careers.” An AFT resolution, “Building a Better Bridge Between Learning and Work Through CTE, Internships and Apprenticeships,” underscores the commitment.
In Germany, CTE—called vocational and education training, or VET—introduces students to a variety of vocations early so they can choose which is the best fit. One of the most attractive elements of the system is the paid apprenticeships that prepare students to work at the host employer even before graduation. Industry and government work together with schools to fund the system.
“Each student actually had work,” says Zeph Capo, president of the Texas AFT and an AFT vice president, reflecting on the students he met during the trip. “They had a flexible model that allowed them to do both work and school at the same time, which dramatically impacts student retention.”
Multiple career paths and industry partnerships
The AFT delegation visited several German vocational schools, including the Berlin Automotive Vocational High School; the Siemens Energy Training Center, which teaches apprentices as well as employees; and schools that feature construction trades, heating and cooling, information technology, chemistry and electronics among other trades. There were also briefings from the German Confederation of Trade Unions, two federal educational and vocational agencies, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Confederation of Skilled Crafts.
Jan Hochadel, president of AFT Connecticut and an AFT vice president, is a graduate of vocational school and says her drafting classes led to a career as a mechanical engineer before she became a teacher. She’s also seen the soaring graduation rate among CTE students in Connecticut’s 17 exemplary vocational schools, where students choose from 26 trades, work for two years and graduate not only with high school credentials but also certifications and journeyman’s licenses.
“CTE means a lot to me,” she says. Now she’s thinking outside the box to consider ways CTE could embrace careers in nursing or other nontraditional fields. She’d like to explore incentivizing employer participation with tax breaks. And she wants to be sure the skills students learn are transferable, and that apprenticeships involve applicable lessons, not “just getting people coffee.”
Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers and an AFT vice president, was impressed with the number of industries involved in German VET. “What I liked about it in particular is the way they have mapped out so many different careers into essential skills,” she says, adding that as many as 128 careers are listed for students to explore. “Career and technical education is a place where students can actually relate to what they’re learning,” says Cropper. “When you put them in CTE, the math and English and everything else makes sense to them because they can see how it’s going to be applied.”
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers and an AFT vice president, helped build the many CTE programs in New York City, where industry partnerships have been a big part of the system. What he saw in Germany seemed more “seamless,” he says. “They have managed to break down the bureaucratic silos to provide students with what they need without all the drama we have in the U.S.” And while New York’s CTE programs have high graduation rates, Mulgrew says, “We need to change the current systems—on the municipal, state and federal levels—to provide both the necessary funding and leadership to create more programs and streamline the process.”
Advocating for the individual and the common good
Gray liked the emphasis on the common good that he saw in Germany: “They’re gearing up their young people to succeed for the good of the whole,” he says. While he acknowledges the vast differences between a country with 50 states and one with just 16, both countries recognize that not everyone wants or needs to go to college. “We need some electricians around here,” he says. “We need some aircraft mechanics. We’re going to need people to maintain a high-speed rail system.”
During their visit, AFT leaders and staff identified the following key actions to bolster vocational education in the U.S.:
- Improve educational and career orientation to interest more students in vocational programs, including by creating pre-apprenticeship programs that allow students to explore career possibilities before entering a vocational program.
- Advocate for incentives to encourage private sector participation in vocational training and increase apprenticeship availability.
- Fund externships for CTE teachers to maintain their knowledge of new technologies so that they are able to keep curricula up to date.
- Create CTE coordinator positions in schools to manage local partnerships, and develop career advising, internships and apprenticeships for students and externships for teachers.
“Nearly all of the young people in CTE programs graduate from high school, and many go to college,” says Weingarten, who was also on the trip. “Why not have these broad choices for all our youth? They need pathways to affordable, accessible college and careers.”