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Dear Congress, Look to IBM for Career and Technical Education Advice

Earlier this week, Congressman John Kline, the Chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, convened a hearing to discuss the increasing need for a reauthorized and revamped Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.  First passed by Congress in 1984, the Perkins Act authorizes federal funds to supplement state and local investments in what was then known as vocational education, but today is more appropriately branded as career and technical education (CTE).  Congress went on to reauthorize the Perkins Act in 1998 and most recently in 2006, when, notably, just a single dissenting vote was cast against its final passage.

If you aren’t familiar with the Perkins CTE Act, you probably aren’t alone. The Act isn’t the flashiest and you aren’t likely to find much about it in your newsfeed.  But don’t be fooled.  The Perkins CTE Act has played a critical role in helping generations of Americans land middle skills jobs –that is, those jobs that require more than a high school degree but less than a college degree. 

The Perkins Act is in dire need of an upgrade. When it was first enacted, it reflected the needs of a 1984 workplace – an environment where desktop computers were considered a novelty and mobile phones were the toys of the rich and famous.  Obviously today’s workplace demands are quite different, placing a premium on bright minds with versatile STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills.  Unfortunately the current education model isn’t always up to the task.  Too many American schools are arming students with the skills of yesteryear instead of polishing the tools they will undoubtedly need in tomorrow’s global marketplace.  Consider for a moment that while our national unemployment rate hovers around 7 percent, vacancies in STEM fields outnumber qualified applicants by nearly 2 to 1.  Moreover, it’s expected that the 30 fastest-growing occupations in the next decade will require some STEM familiarity.  In short, STEM skills are needed today and they’ll be even more sought after tomorrow.

Much like the bipartisan support the Perkins CTE Act has enjoyed, this week’s hearing was an exercise in solidarity for the need to change the law to reflect the needs of a 21st century workplace.  Stanley Litow, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs for ITI-member IBM pointed to four principles that should serve as a blueprint for a revamped Perkins CTE Act:

  • Align curriculum to labor market needs in high-growth industry sectors;
  • Strengthen partnerships between secondary and postsecondary institutions;
  • Improve participation by local employers in making the link between curriculum and in-demand workplace skills; and
  • Incorporate hands-on, experiential learning for students through internships, apprenticeships, and mentorships.

Indeed, IBM has already tested this blueprint with the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) in Brooklyn, New York.  P-TECH is a public 9-14 school model that emphasizes hands-on, experiential STEM learning.  Upon graduating from P-TECH, students earn not just a high school diploma, but also an associate’s degree in applied science.  This gives graduates the choice of either continuing their studies in higher education, or entering the workforce already possessing those fundamental STEM skills a 21st century economy requires.  This public-private endeavor is the brainchild of IBM, the New York City College of Technology, the City University of New York, and the New York City Department of Education.

P-TECH has been wildly successful since its launch in 2011, growing from an initial class of 104 students, to somewhere between 400 and 450 students for the 2014-15 school year.  Students in the program have higher attendance rates, are more likely to exceed New York state and national averages in math scores, and are more likely to meet college-ready benchmarks.

This week’s hearing was timely.  The high tech industry is itching to grow right here in the United States but the truth remains that our nation’s human capital isn’t always up to par.  Too many students –whether in high school, CTE programs, or traditional four year institutions –are leaving school armed with skills that don’t translate in today’s fast paced economy.  IBM’s leadership in tackling this skills crisis has been exceptional.   P-TECH is a shining example of what’s possible with increased collaboration between the public and private sectors in the education space.

As Congress moves forward in the reauthorization process, we at ITI strongly urge Chairman Kline and others to look to the great work being done by IBM and other ITI member companies as guidance in updating the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.

Public Policy Tags: Workforce