Report Sees Strengths and Failings in America's Career and Tech Education

July 11, 2013

Career- and technical-education programs offered by employers and colleges in the United States are diverse and decentralized, and those traits, according to a report released on Wednesday by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, are both their strength and their failing.

The United States has "an exceptionally rich" array of offerings in career and technical education, said Simon Field, a co-author of the report, "A Skills Beyond School Review of the United States." The options in the United States for attending college part time, or as an adult or returning student, are also an advantage.

But that diversity of institutions, programs, credentials, and oversight policies carries a downside, Mr. Field said, speaking at a presentation about the report at the New America Foundation's headquarters here. "There is a risk that diversity can cause confusion in the minds of students and employers" about which programs are of high quality and worth the money.

Another concern, said the report's other co-author, Małgorzata Kuczera, is that accountability in the programs is "relatively weak and fragmented," especially given the amount of public and personal spending on such training. In 2008 that spending totaled about $68-billion, the report estimates.

The OECD has conducted similar studies in 25 other countries over the past five years. "Other countries tend to be more demanding" before awarding funds and accreditation, Ms. Kuczera said, citing for example a policy in Sweden that requires career programs to include work-based training for them to qualify for public support.

"The blend of relatively weak quality assurance with increasing tuition fees, constrained public budgets, and broader economic distress creates a dangerous mix with financial risks both for individuals and lending bodies, including the federal government," the report warns.

While some of the criticism, particularly concerning accreditation, was not new, panelists responding to the report said it highlights issues that are already of concern.

The report's emphasis on better tailoring career and technical training to the real-world needs of employers, for example, resonated with Brent Weil, a senior vice president of the Manufacturing Institute, an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers.

For many of the association's members, which include many companies with fewer than 20 employees, traditional career and technical training "is teetering to the point of irrelevance," he said. Colleges "are missing an opportunity to engage."

Through its Right Skills Now program, the association has identified a series of national industry-recognized certificates for skills that are useful to employers and that provide the basis for a pathway to further learning.

The association has been encouraging colleges to incorporate training for the certificates. Already 113 community colleges are doing so, and this past spring the association announced the first 42 colleges to qualify for its "M List" of institutions that are actively issuing such certificates.