Democrats are just as enthusiastic about the federal government funding career and technical education (CTE) programs, including through the Perkins Act. Senator Elizabeth Warren has called upon the country to “ensure that all students […] have access to career training that will provide a path to a good-paying job,” and Senator Bernie Sanders says that it is in the “national and economic interest” to ensure that every young American may enter a CTE program, which was the only education issue that received bipartisan support in the 2018 midterm elections.
Stephen F. Hamilton’s Career Pathways for All Youth: Lessons from the School-to-Work Movement is a helpful guide to making sense of the current American discussion about “career pathways,” a term that covers apprenticeships, CTE, tech talent pipelines, and other initiatives to make public education focus on preparing young people for jobs.
Early in his book, Hamilton mentions a mother who protested the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 by saying: “My daughter isn’t going to work. She’s going to college.” Hamilton calls this statement a “distortion” of the school-to-work idea, now rebranded as career pathways. But he is not able to explain how this mother is wrong. If policy-makers create a national career pathway system, then college as commonly understood will become a privilege of the wealthy and the beneficiaries of their largesse. Everybody else will be placed in a vocational pipeline from which there is no easy escape.
Why create career pathways? Why not just let young people go to school, learn about different topics, mature, and then once they graduate from high school or college look for a job? Hamilton argues that young people need a vocational focus from an early age in order to become “productive workers, nurturing family members, and active citizens.”
This is the most powerful justification for career pathways. Poverty makes everything harder: buying a house, starting a family, running for office, and so forth. Career pathways have the potential to teach young people, including in historically disadvantaged groups, the skills they need to enter and remain in the middle class. This is particularly true when young people pursue what American Enterprise Institute researcher Nat Malkus calls “new era” fields such as engineering, computer science, and health care, in contrast to traditional fields such as manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture.
Businesses also have good reason to support career pathways. Rather than post job openings and cross their fingers for qualified applicants, employers can build “an education/training pipeline to meet the current and projected shortage of middle-skill workers.” Throughout his book, Hamilton describes companies such as Boeing, Rolls-Royce, and a South Carolina restaurant called SNOB that have profitably used apprenticeships. Apprenticeships seem to be a win-win for individuals and businesses.
It appears that Hamilton wants taxpayers to pick up the tab for training workers. Is the task of public education simply to raise worker bees?
If things stay as they are, Hamilton replies, then many public schools are preparing many young people for low-skill, low-wage jobs. Career pathways prepare young people for high-skill, high-wage jobs, and they may “help reduce racial and economic inequality.” It seems more precise, however, to say that career pathways may pull some people out of poverty. As the economist Thomas Piketty has shown, in the “new gilded age” the rate on return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth. In other words, skilled workers will make more money, but employers of skilled workers will make even more money. The gap between the one percent and everybody else may widen in a new era of CTE.
Skeptics may wonder whether career pathways are a way for employers to use schools to create obedient, useful workers. Hamilton thinks that this perspective does not give enough credit to employers, who “value independent thinking and willingness to identify and advocate for improved working conditions and procedures.”
I would like to register my doubts about Hamilton’s rosy picture of employers. In high school, I worked as a merchandise stocker at a cosmetics store. My job was to open and break down boxes and place supplies on shelves. The only time I had alone was in the bathroom, during the half-hour lunch break, and in a 15-minute break after four hours of work. My high school teachers encouraged and challenged me to think for himself. At work, I had to follow orders or be fired.
Hamilton wants to end the independence that educators have from workforce training. In one disturbing passage, Hamilton corrects the misperception that children under the age of 18 are not allowed to be employed in a factory. Apprentices are “allowed to do work age sixteen that is otherwise limited to people who are at least eighteen.” It is incredible, in the 21st century, for an educated person to advocate 16-year-olds working in factories. Young people in a democracy should have the chance to pursue their dreams, not be assigned a job track after middle school.
What the United States has now, according to Hamilton, is a congeries of programs that should be coordinated into a system. In Brooklyn, New York, P-TECH high school partners with IBM to place its graduates in entry-level jobs at the company. The school’s curriculum is based on skills mapping, that is, providing the academic, technical, personal, and social competencies with a specific job in mind.
In California’s Long Beach Unified School District, whose student body is 57.3 percent Latino, students enter high school having made a choice about a career pathway. This choice is informed by workplace visits, guest speakers, and counseling while in middle school.
The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce has provided students with opportunities to apprentice at auto parts manufacturers including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and Michelin.
While Hamilton thinks that all of these programs are promising, he maintains the country needs a career pathways system — that links secondary education, postsecondary education, and careers — rather than isolated programs. So how do we get there from here?
According to Hamilton, federal, state, and regional governments should fund and regulate career pathways. Schools must adjust to the new reality of a work-focused education system, including by awarding microcredentials, or badges, to signal mastery of specific skills, rather than focusing on four-year college degrees. Hamilton directs much of his advice, however, to the business community to change the American education system.
Businesses could offer ad hoc apprenticeships, but it would be better for Hamilton if they worked together to create a talent pipeline. “Talent pipeline management produces a well-calibrated supply of applicants whose credentials help employers identify which are appropriately qualified.” Hamilton identifies the United States Chamber of Commerce as a leader in this effort. Rather than compete against each other for talented workers, businesses can cooperate to train and identify a sufficient number of skilled employees.
Throughout Career Pathways for All Youth, Hamilton acknowledges that the American education/training system should respect the interests of each individual young person. A career pathways system “must comport with Americans’ values and aspirations.” Like Hamilton, I believe that young people learn by doing things with their hands, that there are benefits to learning about different career paths, and that schools should help young people attain a rewarding occupation.
Nonetheless, Hamilton insists that young people should not be free to choose careers for which there is not a sufficient number of jobs in the region. If “tax-supported schools persistently turn out far more auto mechanics or cosmetologists than the labor market can absorb, they are misguiding students and wasting resources.” Say that a child dreams about acting on Broadway, playing professional basketball, or becoming a liberal arts professor? In Hamilton’s scheme, these doors would be closed from an early age unless the parents can afford to send them to private school. Despite his claims about wanting to reduce racial and economic inequality, Hamilton is helping to create an oligarchic education system, one where only the rich kids are encouraged and prepared to lead the kind of life that they want.
In the appendix, Hamilton lists dozens of people he interviewed for this book, including people who work for the California State University Chancellor’s Office, JPMorgan Chase Foundation, IBM, United States Chamber of Commerce, Apprenticeship Carolina, and so forth. But Hamilton does not list any students or families who have gone through a career pipeline. This book is informed by, and speaks to, the economic and political elite, not the people affected by these plans.
One of the groups praised in the book, Jobs for the Future, received a $3 million grant from the Walmart Foundation to improve job training programs in the transportation, distribution, and logistics industry. Despite the rhetoric of preparing young people for a vocation, career pathways enable companies to pay for the kind of education they want and little more.
Hamilton takes for granted that the economy is what it is and that education should prepare young people to fit into this arrangement. Schools could teach young people to understand the worlds, gain confidence in their right to change it, and then collaborate to create a more just economic regime. From a democratic perspective, Hamilton envisions a dystopian future in which corporations use public schools to create human cogs in the machine. The best private schools in the United States tailor the curriculum to the talents and interests of the students, regardless of whether there is an immediate economic payoff upon graduation. This is what all students deserve.
Hamilton realizes that many parents will become upset when they figure out that their dreams and aspirations for their children do not align with those of the architects of the career planning system. Hamilton recommends that advocates of career pathways “examine and improve language”: rather than say school to work, advocates can say school to career; instead of vocational education, proponents can call it career and technical education; instead of work-based learning, proponents can call it interning; rather than oppose the idea of college for all, redefine college to include career-related certification programs.
Hamilton does not entertain the possibility that parents have good reasons to oppose these plans. “Social marketing expertise can help.” Alas, social marketing cannot change the underlying dynamic that career pathways are creating an economic caste system in the United States. The country is moving toward an arrangement where rich kids get horse farms upon college graduation, and nearly everybody else is placed on a career pathway starting in high school. I stand with the mother who does not want this deal for her child.
Nicholas Tampio is professor of political science at Fordham University. He is the author of Common Core: National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy (2018).