Back to virtual apprenticeships?
© iStockphoto

For students, reality has set in: remote, pod and blended learning are the new “normal.” The transition has been hard enough for those working on algebra assignments. It is even harder for young adults studying to be nursing assistants, bricklayers, mechanics and welders where videos are a far cry from in-person projects and virtual apprenticeships might not include wages. Yet, we need skilled workers — and the career and technical education that supports them — more than ever. During the COVID-19 crisis, how do we adapt without losing the value of in-person apprenticeships?

For more than a decade, employers have been eager to hire workers with more credentials than a high school diploma but not necessarily a college degree, in fields ranging from machinists and mechanics to computer programmers and medical technicians. Even amidst the Great Recession and the years that followed, employers have been looking for workers in electronics, counseling assistants and carpentry. Demand keeps rising as the baby boomers in these positions retire.

This trend has not slipped during the pandemic. In fact, workers in the skilled trades are contributing to the momentum of our short- and long-term recovery. Government construction projects have not stopped; neither has the demand for pipefitters and advanced manufacturers. Even in a post-COVID-19 world, our country will rely on skilled workers to keep our digital and physical infrastructure upgraded and safe.

ADVERTISEMENT

How do we recruit and train them? Career and technical education (CTE) in middle and high school, trade and technical colleges and registered apprenticeships. Small investments in these areas really pay off. CTE students have higher high school graduation rates and in some cases outperform their peers in math and English. The returns to taxpayers measured in future earnings can be as high as $7 for every $1 that a state puts into CTE and $12 for technical colleges. As public budgets tighten as we combat COVID-19, investments in CTE and technical colleges are smart. CTE is also one of the few areas in Congress with resounding bipartisan support.

What makes this education so cost-effective? It is cheaper, faster and more dynamic than a four-year program. High school students often dual enroll in local colleges. Community college students are career-ready in two years. Registered apprenticeships give students a job while they receive nationally recognized certifications. Experienced workers can “upskill” with additional certification in a few months, even into management positions. As trends in technology and the labor market change, trade and technical education let lifelong learners keep up.

But the secret sauce is cooperation between the public and private sectors. Students in high school can intern with future employers, letting them adopt practical business skills and make professional connections. Industry leaders work with state CTE directors to update programs of study and create new ones. In my home state of Rhode Island, for example, we have a submarine-focused shipbuilding program, forged out of a public-private partnership to fill a workforce gap and meet the national security needs of our country. In other parts of the U.S., coding and cybersecurity programs have sprung up. Clearly, we will need more specialists in these areas as the digital world grows.

Bottom line, these workforce development programs launch young adults into employment sectors that desperately need them and into family-sustaining careers. Project-based learning and apprenticeships bring these fields to life, letting students apply classroom knowledge right away. Wages are increasingly competitive with jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, and workers do not spend their days filling out TPS reports.

Sadly, the coronavirus has hit these education programs hard because they have different pedagogical requirements. The programs must be hands-on, literally. Future green energy engineers work with wind turbines, next-generation manufacturers work with robots and automotive technicians work with car engines and the underlying code — none of which are easy to recreate on the living room floor or at the kitchen table.

ADVERTISEMENT

Like everyone, these educators have had mixed results shifting to remote or socially distanced learning. Ask yourself, how can you work on technical projects remotely? Learners in architecture or digital media can do projects at home and share over video, but welding students clearly cannot. If students cannot complete projects, they cannot reach industry standards, delaying when they can start working or requiring additional training from their employers.

As the co-chair of the Congressional CTE Caucus, I have called for additional investment in career and technical education to keep students on track, engaged and adapted to new ways of learning amidst our current crisis. We need to expand pre-apprenticeships to help learners recover from lost in-person time. We must expand access, particularly for adults who are unemployed or need training related to the latest technology. We must modernize and secure our digital infrastructure to provide remote learning opportunities for those who cannot access them. Learning management systems must allow virtual breakout groups, project showcases and training simulations that use virtual reality. We need to communicate where hands-on learning is available, such as community projects or campuses where small classes can reserve lab equipment. We must expand broadband access and provide devices that can handle video chats and the accompanying internet speeds.

We must also provide professional development for teachers who are leading classrooms in a blended era. We must help them create engaging lessons with short videos and at-home projects that are tailored to the COVID-19 reality. We must help CTE teachers, local and state directors, and industry partners provide remote internships, safe classroom and lab access, and community projects like robotics challenges. Teachers also need training in how to provide social-emotional engagement to help students persist in a new learning environment during all the COVID-related stressors.

By doing so, we will have built 21st century classrooms that provide a 21st century education. CTE offers a path forward for all learners if we find a way to provide hands-on opportunities while keeping students healthy. These investments and innovations will last long after this semester ends and the pandemic recedes. 

Langevin represents Rhode Island’s 2nd District. He is co-chair of the Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus.