Flat standardized test scores, low college completion rates, and rising student debt has led many to question the bachelor’s degree as the universal ticket to the middle class. Now, bureaucrats are turning to the job market for new ideas. The result is a renewed enthusiasm for Career and Technical Education (CTE), which aims to “prepare students for success in the workforce.” Every high school student stands to benefit from a fun, rigorous, skills-based class, but the latest reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Act, which governs CTE at the federal level, betrays a faulty economic theory behind the initiative.
Modern CTE is more than a rebranding of yesterday’s vocational programs, which earned a reputation as “dumping grounds” for struggling students and, unfortunately, minorities. Today, CTE classes aim to be academically rigorous and cover career pathways ranging from manufacturing to Information Technology and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Most high school CTE occurs at traditional public schools, where students take a few career-specific classes alongside their core requirements.
In addition to building skepticism toward “college for everyone,” researchers have identified a “skills gap” between what employers want and the skills job-seekers offer. STEM training is a particularly trendy solution. Trump recently signed a presidential memo expanding the National Science Foundation’s STEM education initiatives and Virginia established a STEM Education Commission last year. With its many pathways, local customizability, and promise of immediate income upon graduation, CTE feels like a practical answer for young people and the economy.
As recent changes to the Perkins Act suggest, “alignment” between CTE courses and labor markets is a growing concern. Now, programs applying for federal funds must conduct a “local needs assessment” to ensure their course offerings align with local labor markets. One recent study attempted an early measure of this alignment in several metropolitan areas. Findings are mixed, but the quest for alignment itself shows how hope in career training programs has exceeded good economic sense.
Consider some of the phrases found in states’ CTE mission statements:
“…to prepare students for in-demand, high-skilled, and high-waged jobs.” (MD)
“…relevant experiences leading to purposeful and economically viable careers.” (AZ)
“…meeting the commonwealth’s need for well-trained workers.” (VA)
The desire to parse out an economy and plan accordingly is not new, but there are limits to predicting in-demand skills and future jobs. Friedrich Hayek conceives of the market not as a math problem to deconstruct but as a “discovery procedure.” The market changes, rapidly and unexpectedly, based on information identified only along the way. It is the cumulative and dynamic result of thousands of individual plans coordinating through prices and wages. Thus, a central authority could never collect enough information to make accurate predictions about market outcomes. Aiming at a particular social or economic goal—such as fixing a list of gaps in the labor market—will likely fall short of another outcome we didn’t even consider.
For this reason, Hayek explains in his Constitution of Liberty, flourishing societies must be economically and politically free, and public education should be offered to the extent that it nurtures the independent citizens that a free society requires. Education oriented toward a particular vocational end shortchanges the student. Hayek explains:
"We are not educating people for a free society if we train technicians who expect to be ‘used,’ who are incapable of finding their proper niche themselves … All that a free society has to offer is an opportunity of searching for a suitable position, with all the attendant risk and uncertainty which such a search for a market for one’s gifts must involve.” (Hayek 1960, 144-45).
Picking training goals for a student body is no guarantee of long term success, and may block even better outcomes. It is no accident that Hayek does not count increased earning potential or national economic strength among the reasons to publicly subsidize education. Instead, he favors general education and literacy for social cohesion and democratic participation. Rising wages for high-demand skills should entice students into sparse job markets without extra encouragement from school programs.
Hayek is not alone in his insistence that individuals are in the best position to choose and experiment with their professions. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith recognizes,
"In a society where things were left to follow their natural course, where there was perfect liberty, and where every man was perfectly free both to choose what occupation he thought proper, and to change it as often as he thought proper […] every man’s interest would prompt him to seek the advantageous, and to shun the disadvantageous employment." (Smith 1776, 151)
Rather than encourage programs to narrowly direct CTE training towards local “needs,” the federal government should focus on clearing barriers to entry into those professions. It can preempt state occupational licensing laws for opticians and interior designers, among other professions. States can follow the lead of Arizona and recognize out-of-state occupational licenses.
It is worth noting that CTE advocates are not attempting to plan the American economy one web-design class at a time. High schoolers earn only 12 percent of their credits from CTE, and some of the most prominent proponents recognize the challenges a changing economy poses. But the language we use will shape our goals over time. Requiring districts to consider “labor market alignment” in their annual CTE budgets is exactly the choosing between different kinds of education Hayek cautions against. Today’s alignment can be tomorrow’s stagnation.
This is not to deny the academic and personal benefits of taking CTE classes. Teenagers who do are more likely to graduate high school, to get a job, and to earn higher wages right away. Other studies suggest non-academic benefits like increased attendance. It makes intuitive sense that students would welcome non-traditional learning opportunities to break up their daily studies, and that their high school experience would be better for it. But by insisting CTE programs be training for certain job categories, we may be selling students short.