Thirty years ago, high school shop class seemed on track for extinction.
As school funding became a matter of standardized test scores in reading and math, the budget tightened for classes that taught woodworking and printmaking. From the 1990s to the early 2010s, students took fewer credits in shop class — or as it is now called, Career Tech Education — according to data from the National Center of Education Statistics.
Instead, the priority turned toward securing students spots in four-year degree programs.
But with more job openings in the trades and more questions around the value of a four-year college degree, high schools are turning their attention back to equipping the next generation with hands-on technical skills.
In 2015, 125 CTE-related policies were approved across 39 states, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education — boosting funding for CTE programs was one of the top categories of those policies.
And during the 2016-2017 school year, 98% of public school districts offered CTE to high school students, though the types of programs varied widely, according to the Department of Education.
That comes after a years-long lull period, which means many high schoolers missed out and only discovered opportunities in the trades years after graduation. But as demand for trade labor grows, so too does the focus on CTE in high schools.
Here are two key problems in the workforce that high school CTE seeks to address:
College was the primary postgrad pathway modeled at Rosalyn Jones’ high school in New Jersey.
“Definitely in high school, they pushed college first like it’s kind of the only option,” says Jones, 25, who attended high school from 2012 to 2016. She says her high school offered a woodshop class as a course, but she says there was no CTE requirement.
Jones pursued the path of a college degree, because she says that was the primary postgrad option that her high school promoted. She paid out of pocket for a semester of college until she realized that she likely would not be able to afford the rest of the degree.
“The only time” Jones heard about trade school, she says, was if she already knew someone enrolled.
Seven years after graduating high school, Jones is now attending GAF Roofing Academy for free through a partnership with the federal Job Corps program.
Since its start in 2020, GAF Roofing Academy has trained more than 2,000 students, helping to land jobs for more than 1,100 graduates. Jones says she would have entered the Job Corps program much earlier if she had been aware of it in high school.
To be certain, the four-year degree still has value. The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities projects that those who hold a bachelor’s degree have 84% higher earning potential, or $36,000 more, than people with only a high school degree.
But some high schools now want to show students that traditional college isn’t the only path.
For example, Nolan Brunn, 22, attended high school in Anoka, Minnesota from 2015 to 2019. He says that while his school “pressured” students to follow the four-year college path, it also made available woodshop and metalwork classes.
In addition, it had a partner program with the local vocational college where Brunn could spend three hours of his school day learning skills like welding.
Brunn cruised through the CTE curriculum, eventually outpacing the metalwork level of his peers and the courses offered at his school. His teachers permitted him to work on his own projects even while he was in a lower-level metals course.
After graduation, he got a job at Western Welding Academy in Wyoming, which puts students through a six-month intensive program to teach them everything from flawless welding skills to workplace professionalism.
“I think the cat’s out of the bag a little bit on traditional college,” says Western Welding Academy CEO Tyler Sasse who dropped out of high school at 16 years old to become a welder. He says during his best year, he made $350,000 in 10 months.
“A lot of people are waking up to the fact that the trades are huge and they’ve been huge,” he adds.
Despite CTE’s recent comeback, the lack of emphasis on it in high schools from the late 1980s to early 2010s has created a gap in skilled workers for industrial trades, according to some industry experts.
“What we have in the workforce is a pretty big hole where we didn’t do that training,” says Ed Castile, who runs Alabama Industrial Development Training. “We’re scrambling to get people skilled up in the areas that we need. So every year that we graduate more career-tech-ed students, the better we are.”
From April to May, job openings increased in the construction industry, along with the trade, transportation and utilities sectors, even while the overall number of job openings reduced, according to the most recent JOLTS report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To spread the message about the skills gap, Sasse has gone on the road to advertise Western Welding Academy and help strengthen high school CTE programs. He speaks at high schools all over the country to make students aware that four-year colleges are not the only path forward and sometimes donates equipment to high schools rebuilding their CTE curricula.
Sasse says that when he first started doing this national tour, about a third of the high schools he visited had some sort of CTE. Now, he says that at least half of the high schools he visits have “a really strong CTE program.”
“They’re finally starting to see some real horsepower behind it. It means a lot to us,” says Sasse.
Now a Western Welding alum, the 22-year-old Brunn has watched friends who went to four-year colleges graduate. Brunn says he feels like his career choice has given him a competitive advantage in the job market, since so many trades are in need of workers. He now makes around $30 per hour, around $60,000 to $70,000 per year.
“Everybody needs welders so if a company isn’t treating me how I feel like I should be treated, whether that be pay or anything, I can leave,” Brunn says. “Whereas some of my buddies with engineering degrees, they don’t necessarily have that power.”