American higher education essentially offers two paths toward employment: a high-school diploma or a bachelor's degree. But there is a third underutilized system—career and technical education—that holds the promise of well-paying middle-class jobs.
That system has already prepared workers for 29 million jobs today that pay $35,000 to $75,000 annually. That's why the federal government should bolster the nation's career- and technical-education system so more people can take advantage of the training, says a new report released on Monday by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and by Civic Enterprises, a public-policy group.
The report, "Career and Technical Education: Five Ways That Pay Along the Way to the B.A.," describes in detail the current five pathways that provide career and technical training: employer-based training, postsecondary certificates, registered apprenticeships, industry-based certifications, and associate degrees.
"We don't have that missing middle," says Anthony P. Carnevale, the center's director and the report's lead author. Compared with other countries with advanced economies, the United States underinvests in subbaccalaureate, career, and technical education, he says.
Career- and technical-education programs serve a variety of learners, including high-school students and prison inmates. Programs may be housed at community colleges, technology centers, and high schools. More than 15 million secondary and postsecondary students are pursuing career and technical education, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The United States ranks second in the world in its number of workers with bachelor's degrees but 16th in subbaccalaureate attainment. In fact, the number of subbaccalaureate awards has not increased since the baby-boom era, the report says.
To strengthen the nation's career- and technical-education system, the report recommends that the federal government establish a "learning and earning exchange" that "can bring transparency to the relationship between career and technical education and the labor market." In addition, it calls for the creation of specific "career- and technical-educational programs of study that integrate high-school and postsecondary curriculums with employer-based training."
"We need more pathways to postsecondary education," Mr. Carnevale says. "Without that, we are creating a class-based society in America."
Improving the 'Middle'
Preparation for "middle-education jobs" is growing in importance because jobs requiring only a high-school education or less have basically disappeared, and those that do exist offer very low wages. At the same time, not everyone has the time or money to invest in a bachelor's-degree program.
Blue-collar, managerial-and-professional-office, and sales-and-office-support occupations account for more than 75 percent of the middle jobs, the report says.
Unlike other countries, the United States has a higher-education system that does not do a particularly good job of linking postsecondary education with the needs of the labor market.
That is why developing the exchange recommended in the report could be important, Mr. Carnevale says. The exchange would provide students with information about specific training and education needed for jobs. In addition, educators could better tailor their programs to the job market, and employers would have a way to find new workers.
Mr. Carnevale says the basic infrastructure for the exchange exists because transcript and wage information for workers is already collected. However, the data are "relatively underdeveloped in the vast majority of states" because the essential connection between them and curricula and specific courses offered by colleges is missing.
That link could show students which programs of study lead to decent-paying, secure jobs. In addition, the exchange "could show students how much it would cost them in long-term wages if they drop out of school or how much they would gain, based on their ultimate course of action," the report says.
Given the state of the nation's economy, it is unclear how realistic it is to assume that the federal government would establish such an exchange system. In fact, career and technical education has taken a financial hit in recent years, with the Obama administration cutting millions from programs created by the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act.
The situation could worsen if Congress does nothing to stop looming automatic cuts in the federal budgets for 2013 and beyond, a process known as sequestration. At least one million fewer students would be served by career- and technical-education programs as a result of the sequester, says Andy Van Kleunen, executive director of the National Skills Coalition, an advocacy group that supports work-force training.
Mr. Van Kleunen says that, for too long, postsecondary spending has focused on bachelor's and master's programs. "We overshot," he says. "There are good jobs and good pathways toward quality employment in the middle-skills area."