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CTE's role in the hidden stem economy.

The national rhetoric about the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has not been reflective of career and technical education's (CTE) role in the STEM economy. The June 2013 report, "The Hidden STEM Economy," by Jonathan Rothwell from the Brookings Institution, points to CTE programs as a previously unidentified--or hidden--supply source for sub-bachelor STEM jobs. According to the Brookings report:

"STEM workers play a direct role in the invention, creation and maintenance of technologies that drive economic growth. But previous studies of STEM have focused exclusively on white-collar STEM jobs. In this sense, sub-bachelor's level jobs represent a hidden and unheralded STEM economy." (1)

With a perceived growing STEM skills gap in regions and states around the country, this report could not be timelier. As one of the nation's largest school systems in Virginia, Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) is on the path to connecting CTE with the local STEM economy.

Hidden STEM/CTE Economy

The Brookings report states:

"Half of all STEM jobs are available to workers without a four-year college degree, and these jobs pay $53,000 on average--a wage 10 percent higher than jobs with similar educational requirements. Half of all STEM jobs are in manufacturing, health care or construction industries. Installation, maintenance and repair occupations constitute 12 percent of all STEM jobs, one of the largest occupational categories. Other blue-collar or technical jobs, in fields such as construction and production, also frequently demand STEM knowledge." (2)

The Virginia Beach/Hampton Roads area fared well in the report as one of the top 10 areas for sub-baccalaureate STEM-related jobs. The report claims that sub-bachelor's STEM jobs are prevalent in large metropolitan areas. There is a high CTE-related job demand from some of Virginia's largest employers, such as Newport News Shipbuilding and STIHL, who are looking for CTE graduates in welding, programmable logic control, electricity and electronics, to name a few. CTE programs provide the skill training that addresses the needs of these growth industries--construction, manufacturing, health care, engineering, technology, mechatronics, education and other STEM fields. These are critical areas for the economic future of our region, state and country. Today's CTE programs inherently contain the application-oriented learning experiences illustrating many of the needed STEM skills.

The STEM/CTE policies addressing the hidden STEM economy are more prevalent at the local level. As an example, Opportunity Inc., the region's Workforce Development Board, stipulates that grants for in-school youth must be STEM-based. The Virginia Beach Department of Economic Development (VBDED) helps provide direction for VBCPS CTE programming, and has STEM industries included in the city's strategic plan. Recently, at a Virginia Beach strategic summit meeting, one of the impact statements used to describe the ideal city in 2027 was for "economic diversity to be prominent and to have our city become known as a 'STEM city,' as well as a national tourist destination." Similarly, VBDED is also helping shape the city with a STEM/CTE/mechatronics pipeline with VBCPS, local colleges and the local manufacturing community.

The Brookings Report Speaks Volumes for CTE

Recently, I was afforded the opportunity to talk with Rothwell about his report, (3) and ask a few questions related to CTE.

What was your epiphany that CTE was part of the hidden STEM economy? My older brother has long worked in a craft-heavy industry, and after working jobs with him as a young man, I realized that he and his colleagues knew a lot more about how technologies worked than I did. More recently, I've been impressed by interviews with skilled production workers [who] recount the bodies of knowledge that they are responsible for--such as engineering, electronics and calculus.

What is the major CTE takeaway from your report?

The public has been taught to think of skilled work as synonymous with at least a bachelor's degree, especially in STEM fields. In fact, there are multiple pathways to a highly skilled and rewarding career, even in STEM occupations. A strong foundation as a technical-oriented high school, a postsecondary certification program or an associate degree can be combined with experience and on-the-job-training to give someone the knowledge they need to work in a STEM field and earn a middle class salary. These workers also make outsized contributions to U.S. innovation, infrastructure and health care, boosting the welfare of everyone else in their region and the nation.

What can CTE educators do to help advocate the STEM/CTE economy connection?

Inspire, inform and implement. CTE educators can inspire their students by exposing them to the power of science and technology to understand the world and transform people's lives for the better. They can inform students about the rewarding career paths that lie ahead for people with STEM knowledge and the diverse pathways available. I would encourage every student to pursue as much formal education as possible, especially in high-demand fields like STEM; but realistically, some folks, young and old, just aren't going to select the bachelor's degree route for many different reasons, so educators should be aware of as many alternative pathways as possible. Educators also are on the front lines of implementing best practices in STEM education--like mentorship or apprenticeship opportunities and competitions--and maintaining close ties between curriculum options and the latest developments in scientific knowledge and industry needs.

What role can a CTE/STEM-credentialed workforce play in the STEM economy?

CTE credentials can empower students and workers with a set of skills that are in demand across an industry, allowing them to seek out and identify the best opportunities locally and nationally. On the employer side, credentials also take the risk out of hiring workers, since there is some guarantee that [these workers] have mastered an important body of knowledge. This should lead to fewer temporary jobs and greater investment on behalf of employers in their workforce.

How can we ensure policymakers do not overlook a K-12 CTE/STEM-credentialed workforce?

We can emphasize that CTE/STEM workers solve two public problems: The need for workers to have in-demand skills and middle class salaries, and the need for innovation and economic prosperity. Policymakers know that both of these needs are addressed by highly educated STEM workers, which is why leaders from both political parties champion, at least in principle, ideas to boost the supply of such workers. What they and the public don't fully appreciate is that sub-bachelor's level STEM workers also share these attributes. For example, many technicians and production workers earn decent salaries while making important contributions to U.S. innovation. These are the workers who invented the world-changing technologies of the industrial revolution, and today, among other things, they provide crucial support and complementary knowledge to researchers and highly-educated scientists.

What insights can you give on effective communication, implementation and capacity building in a large school system? Salience and engagement. Acquiring knowledge takes sacrifice. Children, and even adults, must be persuaded that the effort will pay off. Knowledge provides the power to change the world and the prosperity to enjoy doing so. That theme can be embodied and promoted in the culture of a school through posters, infographics, apps, seminars, films, speakers and field trips. It is easier to illustrate these themes with STEM because students are already so engaged with technology in their daily lives. Taking the kids to a museum or factory tour is not enough. The content needs to be connected to what they are learning in the classroom. Educators need to make the connection between the effort made in the classroom and the amazing accomplishments that are possible as a result. Internships and apprenticeships help, which is the engagement side. Finally, educators also make sacrifices, especially if they have knowledge in lucrative subjects like STEM, which could have given them a much higher-paying career. For that reason, educators should be reminded that their sacrifice is making their community and the world more prosperous, which can hopefully motivate continuous learning on their side.

CTE Credentialing in the Hidden STEM Economy

So, how do we get even more CTE programs to be recognized for their alignment with STEM jobs so that graduates can meet employers' STEM skill requirements? Part of the answer may be in skills verification by CTE student completers acquiring industry credentials. This then becomes a high-stakes competency-based model using industry-certified demonstrations of STEM knowledge that can be applied in real-world settings. CTE programs frequently use authentic applications of content, which can help inspire students for future STEM careers. By having rigorous STEM-related content in CTE programs, students will have the option to earn postsecondary degrees or STEM-related skill certifications, both of which bode well in the STEM economy.

One could almost foresee the new definitions of the hidden STEM economy emerging when Tom Friedman wrote in his New York Times November 17, 2012, oped: "Who knew? Welding is now a STEM job--that is, a job that requires knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math." (4)

The expanded STEM thinking necessary to make the STEM field more inclusive has been explored in Virginia for a number of years. Providing high school CTE program completers with industry credentialing opportunities has been an initiative since Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) spearheaded the effort as governor in early 2000. At VBCPS, we have made the claim since 2009 that approximately 85 of our industry credentials offered to students are STEM-related. This past year, there were 5,802 industry credentials earned by VBCPS students and more than 37,000 since 2002. Now, under the broader STEM definition used by Brookings, new credence is given to the fact that 91 of VBCPS's 108 different CTE industry credentials can be earned by CTE completers who then become integral to the sub-bachelor STEM economy.

James Batterson, a former senior advisor to the Commonwealth of Virginia for STEM initiatives, has long seen the connection of CTE/STEM-related occupations as seen in Figure 1.

Start Future STEM/CTE Students Young

The VBCPS STEM Robotics Challenge (SRC) is offered to students in grades 5-12 as an after-school STEM program that encompasses nearly all of VBCPS's required 21st-century skills: critical thinking, creative/innovative thinking, problem solving, information literacy, listening, collaboration, communication, social responsibility, sustainability, interdependence and health literacy. The sustainability-themed 2013 challenge directed students, using the engineering design process, to build a robot that performs a community service positively impacting the oceanfront environment by extracting beach pollution within a specific timeframe.

The challenge taught more than 722 students from 50 VBCPS schools how to not only practice the 21st-century skills, but also to learn circuit board technology, soldering, programming, chassis assembly, trouble-shooting and the engineering design process. The parent of a fifth grade student observed: "During one competition when a robot developed a malfunction, the teacher/mentor asked the student what could be done with it. The student immediately responded that in order to troubleshoot the issue all he had to do was to move some wiring on the circuit board, rewrite the software program to compensate, determine if the board [or the servo] was faulty and then determine what action to take."

For Batterson, VBCPS is a national leader in the STEM front:

"The Virginia Beach Public Schools STEM Robotic Challenge (SRC) is an extremely well-thought-out program that has engaged students (and their parents!) from elementary school through high school. The SRC provides an engineering (the "E" of STEM) experience with the robot design process, hands-on technology experience (both mechanical and electronic) in building the robots, and completes the engineering design process with actual implementation and evaluation of the robot's performance against design requirements. Each year, the challenge problem is socially relevant and, thus, [the] SRC has nicely anticipated the engineering core ideas of the new Next Generation Science Standards."

We need to start STEM/CTE education early, and a fifth grade robotics challenge seems just the right place.

STEM/CTE Career Pathways

Looking ahead, the STEM/CTE conversation might seem daunting. And it might even seem unusual to see city leaders, local businesses and educators sit down and talk economic strategy and collectively see how their priorities can support that vision. Fortunately, this is already a reality in the Virginia Beach area. We have been able to sit down and discuss the region's economic development opportunities with VBDED and new businesses for several years. These dialogues are critical to a strong educational system and a strong STEM/CTE economy.

Taken as a whole, it now becomes a local, regional and state responsibility to think through what college and career readiness means. That responsibility should include clearly painting the STEM/CTE pathways for our students so that they can see and navigate the onramps and off-ramps that they might take advantage of over their STEM-career lifetimes.

As we move forward with a STEM/ CTE career pathway approach to secondary education, these pathways can prepare graduates for both postsecondary education and careers. It will be easy for students to connect academics to real-world problems, like the sustainability-themed STEM Robotics Challenge mentioned previously.

When we begin to purposefully connect the wide range of STEM/CTE career pathways that link to industry sectors, these pathways will help create project-based, real-world applications for rigorous and relevant curriculum and instruction. STEM/CTE career pathways will then fit seamlessly to maximize resources, focus educational programs to strengthen outcomes, attract more students, meet future workforce needs and better engage economic development and business partners.

By having STEM/CTE alignments in place, states and regions will be able to forge an educational pipeline that supports STEM-driven economic/workforce development. Virginia is not the only state poised and ready to meet STEM employer needs; other states are on the move as well. The STEM/CTE "hidden economy" story is still being written, and CTE sits squarely in the table of contents.


(1.) Taken from the infographic, "The hidden STEM economy: Key findings" by Jonathan Rothwell. Retrieved from: research/interactives/2013/the-hidden-stem-economy

(2.) Rothwelll. J. (2013, June). The hidden STEM economy. Retrieved from: www.brookings. edu/research/reports/2013/06/10-stemeconomy-rothwell.The full report can be retrieved from: stem%20economy%20rothwell/thehiddenstemeconomy610.pdf

(3.) After reviewing the Brookings report, the three Virginia Beach partners--VBDED, Opportunity Inc., and the VBCPS Office of CTE--invited Rothwell last fall to speak to over 130 business, city and school system leaders. As a result of his impact on CTE and STEM, Virginia Beach CTE teachers are now required to enroll in the Virginia Beach professional development iTunes U course: "CTE's Role in the Hidden STEM Economy," which features Rothwell's Brookings Institution report. A video of his visit to Virginia Beach can be seen at: TCE/STEM.asp.

(4.) Quote from The New York Times op ed, "If you've got the skills, she's got the job." The article can be viewed at: www.nytimes. com/2012/11/18/opinion/sunday/FriedmanYou-Got-the-Skills.html

Patrick Konopnicki, Ed.D., has been director of CTE in Virginia Beach City Public Schools for over twenty years. He can be reached at patrick.
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Title Annotation:CTE & Its Connection to Economic Expansion
Author:Konopnicki, Patrick
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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