By Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Congressman Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-PA)
Though we come from opposite sides of the aisle, we successfully worked together as co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus to overhaul the law responsible for much of our nation’s career and technical education system.
The Perkins Act, which is the primary federal funding source for career and technical education programs, had not been reauthorized in over a decade, and it was clear there was a strong need to better align what is taught in the classroom with the skills businesses need today.
This long-overdue reauthorization bill, the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, passed Congress unanimously and was signed into law by President Trump on Aug. 1. It ensures businesses have more input in classroom curricula so students are learning in-demand skills for the workplace. It also expands student access to apprenticeships, while increasing career and technical education investment by $100 million over the next five years.
Career and technical education was once known as “vocational education,” which, for many people, evokes memories of shop classes for students who weren’t “cut out” for college. The vocational education of yesteryear was regarded by many as a plan B for students. But that is not the career and technical education of today, which is not a fallback option, but a pathway that appeals to students of all abilities.
Today’s programs prepare students for college and high-skill, high-paying careers. They teach core academic and job-specific technical skills while incorporating the use of communication, teamwork, problem solving and other “soft skills” that are highly valued by employers and lead to better outcomes when students enter the workforce.
In addition to classroom instruction, career and technical education provides hands-on learning using advanced equipment like 3D printers and medical simulators, and it creates opportunities to participate in on-the-job training in leading local businesses. Nearly 12 million students were enrolled in high school and postsecondary classes in the 2016-2017 school year, and this number is growing.
We need to be rid of the stigma that surrounded vocational education once and for all and embrace today’s career and technical education programs. These programs engage students, allow them to explore different career paths, and prepare them for today’s workplace. They also fill a dire economic need: they build a skilled workforce.
When we travel across Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, we hear the same thing from businesses — they can’t find qualified workers to fill open positions. Nationally, 46 percent of employers cite difficulty finding skilled talent, and more than 80 percent of manufacturers report that worker shortages impact their ability to meet customer demand.
Career and technical education helps close this skills gap, driving economic growth and yielding big returns on investment for state economies. But this can only happen when students are learning relevant skills for in-demand jobs, when education and industry are aligned through partnerships across secondary and postsecondary schools.
Our bill puts these partnerships front and center, bringing stakeholders from local businesses and schools to the table. It ensures career and technical education programs are adequately preparing students not only for college, but also for career success and providing them with work-based learning opportunities. It strengthens federal investment in career and technical education programs, allowing students and businesses to thrive.
Our colleagues in Congress agreed this was an important bill. Despite our ideological differences, we found common ground on the necessity of modernizing these programs, on updating an old law to create new pathways of success for our constituents.
Yes, political rhetoric can be nasty at times, but we can work together when we put our minds to it; we did it with career and technical education, and we were proud to lead that effort.
Now it’s time to implement the law, and even more importantly, it’s time to move this spirit of bipartisanship forward — to find other policy areas where we can work together to expand opportunities for the American people.
Jim Langevin is a Democratic U.S. representative from Rhode Island. Glenn “GT” Thompson is a Republican U.S. representative from Pennsylvania.