Visit any school in the country and you are likely to hear conversations about closing the achievement gap, and rightfully so. Closing the achievement gap helps to ensure a high-quality education for all students. While closing this gap is important, there are other gaps that largely go ignored by educators: namely, skills and wage gaps. Although these gaps often go unnoticed, a solution for each can be found in your local school.
If closing the wage gap is the ultimate goal, then it stands to reason that closing the skills gap should be the first step. For many years students have been misled into believing that the only path to success is through a four-year degree. Most students listened, resulting in large numbers of college graduates, $1.3 trillion in student loan debt and a widening skills gap. As a result, employers across the Nashville area, Tennessee and the nation are struggling to find employees with the necessary skills and training for their open positions.
One solution to this problem is high-quality Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs at the high school level. High-quality CTE programs, whether delivered in STEM academies such as those in Nashville, stand-alone CTE schools like the Greene Technology Center in Greeneville, or embedded in traditional school settings, provide opportunities for students at the high school level to learn skills that prepare them for the high-demand careers that are currently available, as well as those that will be available in the future.
Not only can students obtain skills while in high school, but they can also continue into a post-secondary program at a Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) or a community college, where they will deepen their knowledge in their chosen field. Tennessee students have the added bonus of being able to attend these institutions debt free thanks to the Tennessee Promise and Drive to 55 initiatives. These programs allow students to seamlessly transition from high school CTE programs into post-secondary technical areas where they can further hone the skills needed for careers in high-growth fields.
Recently, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education held a SCORE Institute where Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute discussed the challenges and difficulty of upward mobility for students born in low-income homes. Petrilli noted that the wage gap has been widening for decades, especially since the 1980s. By closing the skills gap through high-quality secondary and post-secondary CTE programs, students are given an opportunity for upward mobility through higher earnings and future growth opportunities. The skills learned in secondary and post-secondary CTE programs also hold the potential to close the wage gap by allowing employees to enter the job market sooner and at much higher salaries than minimum wage.
Skilled labor jobs can be found all across Tennessee. Whether they be at Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Nissan and GM in the Nashville area or FedEx in Memphis, the need for skilled labor in Tennessee is abundantly clear. Future growth also looks promising, with corporations such as Hankook Tires opening a new facility in Clarksville. These jobs hold the potential for millions of people to obtain careers in areas such as robotics, nursing, welding and machining with starting salaries ranging from $36,000-$66,000, which would allow families to put food on their tables, roofs over their heads and clothes on their backs, and provide opportunities to rise out of poverty and into middle class.
Tennessee must provide more skilled labor and close the wage gap in order to ensure future economic success for the state and its citizens. If closing these gaps is the goal for Tennessee, then the solution to both of these problems is to build high-quality Career and Technical Education programs for our students, ensuring that our students have the skills and training necessary to meet the needs of businesses statewide. With a statewide need for skilled labor and a desire to close the wage gap, it is time for Tennessee to focus on Career and Technical Education as a path to success.
Brad Gentry is a husband, father, teacher and advocate for CTE. He is also a Tennessee Educator Fellow Alumni. Follow him on Twitter @mrbradgentry.