Joining us on this episode is Chelle Travis, executive director of SkillsUSA.
SkillsUSA is a partnership of students, teachers, and industry working together to ensure America has a skilled workforce. We help each student excel. A nonprofit national education association, SkillsUSA serves middle school, high school, and college/postsecondary students preparing for careers in trade, technical, and skilled service (including health) occupations.
SkillsUSA serves more than 372,655 students and instructors annually. This includes 20,598 instructors who join as professional members. Including alumni, SkillsUSA membership totals over 434,000. SkillsUSA has served 13.6 million annual members cumulatively since 1965 and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Labor as a successful model of employer-driven workforce development.
Bob Martin: Welcome to Imagine America Radio. I’m Bob Martin, the host of today’s show. I’m joined by my foundation colleague Lee Doubleday. We’re very excited about today’s podcast topic: What is a career and technical college? Where did the career colleges come from? What’s their genesis? How are they different from other types of postsecondary institutions? And what is the future of these particular colleges and universities?
I’d like to start off today with a very brief introduction of our guest. Today, we’re joined by Chelle Travis. Chelle is the executive director of SkillsUSA. SkillsUSA is located in Northern Virginia and is one of the largest national student organizations representing high school and middle school students looking at career and technical education. They have over 350,000 members nationwide and partnerships with ASE, Carhartt, John Deere, Home Depot, Snap-on Tools, Toyota, and more and more and more. We could not think of a better person to talk about this and a better guest for today’s episode. Chelle, we want to thank you for joining us.
Chelle Travis: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me. Looking forward to it.
Bob: Well, are you comfortable with us calling you Chelle? It’s very informal.
Chelle: Oh, absolutely. Please call me Chelle.
Bob: OK. Let’s start off. So, let’s start on common ground. Why don’t we start off with a definition of what we think, or what you think as the guest, is a career and technical college? That’s for our audience to understand. So, Chelle, what is a career and technical college in your mind?
Chelle: So, to me, what is so important as I’m speaking to middle-schoolers and high school students as well—and we’re talking about their future careers and career opportunities that are for them and the importance of postsecondary education. I think postsecondary career and technical education (and a postsecondary career and technical institution) takes many shapes. Those can come in the form of apprenticeship programs, of ACT centers—or ATC centers, and the area technical centers. Those technical centers are CTE-focused institutions that serve learners in school districts and educational service areas and workforce areas or regions. And they’re often sub-baccalaureate, meaning that they don’t lead to a four-year degree. And they concentrate on training that can be for secondary learners and postsecondary learners or both. Then there are technical colleges, community colleges, and universities that have technical programs as well. So really, career and technical education at the postsecondary level can take many different forms, and I think that’s important to know.
Lee Doubleday: All right. Well, this question that we’re answering in defining career and technical schools sounds like a relatively simple question. But I think to get a better picture of what a career and technical school really is, we should take a look at the past. Where career and technical education came from, like Bob said, the genesis of career and technical education—Chelle, you’ve been working in the space for a very long time. Can you briefly explain to our audience how career and technical education came about in the first place?
Chelle: Well, that’s a very great question. And career and technical education actually has its roots in the very founding of our country, the very founding of the United States. And from the start, knowledge and skill set for our citizens was actually considered very important. The right to a free public education for children was actually stressed early in our history. Apprenticeships then gave way to formal schooling in certain trades. And during the first 50 years of the United States, public education was very limited. And actually, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that females began to enter schools to prepare for teaching opportunities. And then that went into the early 19th century, and workforce and public education systems actually started working together to create a continuous stream of workers for different jobs. Schools specializing in training students to enter certain areas of the workforce started opening their doors, creating the framework, really, for career and technical education.
And then the first manual training school was established in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1879, and it set the foundation for a modern career and technical education. The school actually combined hands-on learning and academics, so our technical skills and our academics. And the first trade school was opened in New York in 1881. So, near the turn of the 20th century, we saw agricultural education start to thrive and agricultural schools started to open their doors. And then the federal role in career and technical education began over 100 years ago with the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act of 1917. That legislation marked the first federal investment in secondary vocational education. And this spurred the first mass acceptance of career and technical education that came after World War I, and that movement spread in the years that followed. Career and technical education really expanded then to include adult education and retraining of our citizens to reenter the workforce. And World War II caused a surge in career and technical education as technical skills were needed for defense purposes.
And since then, we’ve really seen a continued evolution. At the national level, funding for CTE programs is now provided through the Strengthening Career and Technical Education Act for the 21st Century. And also, that act is known as Perkins V. So, at the national level, the funding for CTE programs is provided through the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, also known as Perkins V. And Congress actually last renewed that in August of 2018—and put additional funding in the year that followed, in FY 2019, actually, for career and technical education. And I think we’ve seen it really come full circle where we saw, initially, we had a lot of focus on apprenticeship programs. And I think even now, within the pandemic, we have seen a focus really on—and a spotlight on—career and technical education as we’ve seen the essential nature of technical skills and of our technical workers in the United States and the importance that they play. And we’re also seeing a resurgence of those apprenticeship programs and the importance of actually getting that hands-on experience in addition to the academics—so those technical skills that are grounded in academics and those personal and workplace skills as well.
Bob: Having been around it for a very long time, I’m listening—that was a very nice explanation in bringing us up through the history. I’ve researched some of the stuff on the school side.
But the exciting thing about SkillsUSA as I see it—this is Bob Martin speaking—is that it is driven by student leadership groups. So, as I was listening to your presentation and I was listening to our country go through this evolution that you talk about, beginning in 1800 and agricultural—so then you understand where the future farmers came from because that was being driven by an agricultural-based economy. And then I listened to you—hear you say we had the commercial side of the country explode. Then you see all these business and secretarial schools. So then if I’m not mistaken, you’ve got the deck of people that have some of those kinds of—some of those kinds of students.
Chelle: A marketing expertise?
Bob: Yes. But the key thing in my mind has always been Carl Perkins. You mentioned Perkins. The original—Carl Perkins, I believe, is the gentleman that put into federal legislation the student leadership groups. In other words, I believe he’s the one that recognized them in 1964, I believe. He established them. He says, “We got to have people like SkillsUSA out there that’s mobilizing these young people.” So when I heard you say Perkins, I go, “Oh my God, I remember Carl Perkins.” I remember his son came in. His son came in and—so we have a lot of common ground in all this. So, you’ve explained all that. Excellent. Thank you.
How do you see—what’s the difference in your mind between those kind of schools and traditional colleges? In other words, what do they do that seems to be a little bit more attractive to your high school students than a traditional college, curriculum-wise, I guess?
Chelle: I think one of the main keys in any postsecondary career and technical education program is really that connection between business and industry. The CTE programs, the postsecondary CTE institutions are designed to really support and prepare learners to actually meet the needs of industry. And, so, the flexibility that they have and some of the requirements that they had to actually have—this is an industry at the table driving the curriculum, stating, “This is what we need our entry-level employee to be able to do,” and then the institution being able to then design that curriculum to meet those needs. So that responsiveness to the industry needs is so critical—and that connection. I think that’s one really key factor to some of the success of SkillsUSA, is actually that connection to business and industry and providing that connection to our states, our students, our advisors, and our business and industry partners and creating that pipeline for business and industry of the workers that they really need. And career and technical education is really focused on not only your career success but your personal success as well.
So, at SkillsUSA, I think something that we focus on that is so important: we call our framework skills. And this is what is ingrained in every SkillsUSA program, is your technical skills that are grounded in academics and those that we know that are so important, but also bringing together our personal and workplace skills to support those technical skills as well. I think that is really—and creating that pipeline that the employer needs that—often those employability skills or those personal and workplace skills that I was talking about, those skills are really skills that employers need. They are demanding of our students. But many times our employees are lacking, and their entry-level employees are lacking. And, so, I think that’s really a difference in technical education and in many other forms of education, is actually that connection to industry, the flexibility, and the nimbleness to be able to react to the changes in those needs and proactively plan for those as well because of the business and industry connection.
Also, I think in the career and technical education in these institutions, there’s no other form of education in my mind that can change the trajectory in someone’s life, in someone’s community, and in their family in such a short period of time. Because in these institutions, they prepare their students for the world of work and for the workforce. They get in. They get out. And they get a job. And they build those skills so they can build on going on in life. So, it’s not necessarily just that first career, but it gives you the skills that you need to build in the future as well. And I think that after high school, many CTE graduates and SkillsUSA students often take many different paths. They can continue their career-focused education at the technical college, at the community college or trade school. They can enroll in a four-year university, or they may seek an apprenticeship or join the military or sometimes go right into work with that hands-on training that they’ve received—and then later come back and build upon that as well. So, many opportunities for those students.
Lee: Yeah. Yeah. I like how you mentioned about the—we call them soft skills, which would be working on a student’s interview skills, communication skills, that a lot of our career and technical institutions—like you said, because they have the connection into the business and industry world, really focus on, which I think is great. And I think what you guys are doing is great. I know that you offer your own—I think you call them badges, or is it certifications that student—?
Chelle: A credential. And I think that’s one thing that you’ll see in CTE, those credentials of value and one that are career essentials. Curriculum, assessment, and credentialing program is what SkillsUSA is really focusing on. Again, those framework skills, those employability skills of our students, and taking them through those programs to ensure that they’re prepared to enter the world of work. And I think that many students in quality CTE programs, they not only have better graduation outcomes—and this is on the secondary level. But then also the postsecondary level, they have not only better graduation outcomes, but they also are ready for employment. So they have their employability, and those opportunities are available for them. And they have better employment rates than you see in other forms of training because of the hands-on opportunities that they’ve had for job shadowing, apprenticeship, internship, co-op programs—those experiences that really—they provide them with not only a better understanding of the world of work but really those experiences that they need to be successful and apply those practical skills to real-world scenarios and prepare them for the employment they’re going to enter into.
Bob: Chelle, we didn’t talk about this, and if you would rather we didn’t, that’s OK. But I think our audience is probably wondering, “What structure are we talking about here?” I know SkillsUSA. I’ve been to your national meeting. I see the thousands and thousands of motivated young students that have worked their way up through your infrastructure of school-based programs to maybe county, to state, national.
Could you just give us, very quickly, a thumbnail about SkillsUSA and your structure, because there might be some people in our audience that just are not familiar with it or didn’t realize that someone down the hall is actually working with some of these students?
Chelle: Absolutely. So, in SkillsUSA, we serve students in all 50 states and three territories. We have associations in all 50 states and three territories. We serve approximately 400,000 students and teachers nationwide in middle school, high school, and college postsecondary program—and over 130 different occupational and skilled trades areas and also service occupations. We are in approximately 20,000 classrooms across the nation. SkillsUSA is embedded in those classrooms. And as a talent pipeline, SkillsUSA’s classrooms graduate more than 100,000 career-ready students annually. And you mentioned the credentialing that we do. And SkillsUSA offers career-ready skills development through our online career essentials suite. And that is the curriculum, the assessments, and those credentialing opportunities that we offer our students each year.
And you’re right. We’re in many classrooms and schools across the nation in every state. You mentioned they were getting to go to a national conference and that many may have seen that. Right now, we have students across the nation that are competing—virtually, many of them—on a regional and state level and preparing to come to our virtual national conference this year. But also, I want to encourage those—so that competition and getting to really hone those technical skills in the classroom, getting students prepared—all students prepared—at the local level really is so important. But also, this year we are adding to our national conference something that’s called Connect to My Future. And you were talking about—we were talking about the importance of business and industry. And this is going to allow more of our students and instructors to connect to our national industry partners, so our industry partners from across the nation, and have those experiences and take part in those experiences in their classroom. So, so excited to have more students that we will actually be able to deliver national programming to. It has been a challenge for many of our technical instructors to be in a virtual environment. And so just really excited to be able to bring our national business and industry partners to them this year.
Bob: We’re clamoring, and there’s a national discussion about essential jobs and what are they and who are they. It just seems to me that SkillsUSA has been dealing with people that want to go into what we would call essential jobs for 100 years, even dealing with the student leadership and the teachers that are preparing these young people for 100 years now. So, if any of our audience that has the opportunity to go to one of your competitions, whether it’s locally or whether it’s regional or state, you should. And if you’ve got a chance to go to the national competition, that is just outstanding. There’s so much activity. There’s so many excited young people. You can’t leave that place without being absolutely thoroughly excited about the future of young people in this country. You can’t leave that place. My compliments to you.
Chelle: Well, I’m very excited. I’m excited about being able to offer this opportunity to our students nationwide during this very challenging year for everyone in education. But I also look forward to the time when we’re able to all gather together again for our national conference. So, you can see that on display that really—and we can really focus on elevating technical skills in America. And I think that’s what we do through our programming, whether it’s virtually or at our national conference in person or virtually, either way. Just love elevating the skilled trades and our outstanding students and advisors and business partners from across the nation.
Bob: You’re right on target. We want to really thank you for really giving us some of your time today. It went into a couple of areas. But that’s a good thing! That’s absolutely a good thing. The more that we can bring out to tell our audience, which are school counselors, about the benefits of groups like yours, that’s what we should be doing. And we want to thank you for coming on—I can’t think of a better spokesperson to talk about preparing young people for these jobs. I want to thank you.
Anyone who’s interested in more information on SkillsUSA, how to become a member, how to get some additional information on their meetings and their leadership councils or whatever, you should call (703) 777-8810. Or you can go to their website, which is www.skillsusa.org.
Before we close, I want to thank Chelle for giving us her time today. This has been an absolutely crazy year. I can only imagine what it’s meant to your people to have a sound, solid leader like you giving them real solid direction. We want to thank you for joining us on Imagine America Radio. And for our audience, I want to thank you for taking the time out. Have a great day. Thank you very much.
Chelle: Absolutely. Thank you guys. Thank you guys for having me.