CTE for All
Jim Armitage

Greetings from Professor Emeritus, Jim Armitage. The day I decided to retire, I experienced a single moment of career reflection. 30 years of my working life flashed by in mere seconds. What I saw was both amazing and concerning at the same time. Let me explain.

The year was 1989. I responded to a want ad for an Automotive Service Instructor at Waubonsee Community College. It was a dream job. Looking back, a decision I'd repeat without hesitation. That is the amazing part of choosing a career that "ticked all the boxes." I am leaving secure in the belief that I truly made a difference in the lives of countless students I had the privilege to teach.

Now, for that part that has me concerned.

As a Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher--i.e. trainer, learning facilitator, mentor and/or coach--of automotive service technology, my philosophy was squarely focused on preparing students for entry-level employment in the automotive service field. The students who enrolled (and prospered) in classes back then could be characterized as mechanically inclined, good with their hands, and mostly visual learners.

Fast forward thirty years. It's a gross understatement to suggest that the modern automobile has undergone change. The very notion that the driver is on the verge of becoming obsolete suggests a heavy reliance on some pretty sophisticated technology. Today's vehicles require a level of engineering and design that boggles the mind. The incorporation of this highly sophisticated, complex, and costly technology requires an array of advanced electronics in the form of multiplexed networks, smart modules, AI sensors, and more. Suffice it to say, today's cars are not your "father's Oldsmobile" anymore. Changes that used to occur over the course of decades, now change annually, far outpacing the ability of many service technicians to keep up.

True, automobiles are evolving at an astonishing rate. Also true, however, is the fact that the traditional qualities that define traditional CTE students entering our industry-- mechanically inclined, good with their hands, and mostly visual learners--are no longer good enough. Without mincing words, many of the advanced skills that are necessary to understand, diagnose, and effectively repair modern automobiles support the need for a different caliber of student - one that is better prepared in areas like critical thinking, research skills, communication, time management, and study habits to name a few. For sake of discussion, I am referring to improved learning readiness emphasis for all students, at all levels of education.

One does not have to dig deep to find evidence for the concerns I have voiced. Identifying problems without offering solutions is often dismissed as nothing more than a well-articulated rant or complaint. So, what needs to be done? How do we attract students with the qualities our industry now requires?

Some things to consider include:

  • Change prevailing mindsets by promoting with equal vigor the educational equivalencies of both a CTE-based degree and non-CTE degree. Changing the perception of modern CTE programs as something more than "job training" is a start.  The goal being to deepen the pool of perspectives of students that equate CTE with a traditional degree. There are volumes of published suggestions on how to accomplish this once the mind is opened to the idea.
  • Get the stakeholders involved early. We need to pursue inspired ways of communicating all educational options with parents, students, and counselors early in the educational process. Again, the information on how to accomplish this is readily available.
  • Target your message (recruit) to all students. Just once in my career, I would have appreciated the opportunity to visit a school with permission to promote the benefits of our automotive service program to the general student population as a whole. I always enjoyed speaking to the targeted students currently enrolled in automotive courses. Broadening the audience would have allowed for a different impact.
  • Student preparation in the "readiness" areas mentioned above should be incorporated in all classes for all students. The earlier, the better.

The well-defined, supported, and quality CTE programs available to students at Waubonsee are second to none, in my opinion. Unfortunately, the problem is not about what one educational institution is doing right or wrong. It is a much broader educational philosophy issue that requires change to keep up the pace with evolving industry standards. As a final thought, let's start from the premise--you don't have to be bad to get better.