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What Is Career and Technical Education?

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The term “career and technical education” (CTE) emerged in the 1980s, eventually replacing “vocational education” as the preferred generic term for programs that build job skills through academic instruction and technical training. According to the 2019 report The Evolution of Career and Technical Education: 1982-2013, the re-branding was formalized with the 2006 passage of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act Amendments of 1990 (Perkins IV),”

Why the Name Change?

The National Center for Education Statistics says that, in the past, popular occupation-specific subjects and vocational education courses offered general labor-market training for basic skills such as typing or word processing, consumer and homemaking education courses, and occupational home economics. Unfortunately, the term vocational education “not only carried social stigma for its nonacademic connotations, but also harked back to a troubled era of schools’ tracking of students by race and class,” wrote Nat Malkus, deputy director, Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

In an article published by the education news organization EdSurge, AFT president Randi Weingarten said, “Last century’s vocational programs offered old-fashioned woodworking and auto mechanics, providing good skills but also tracking students for jobs right out of high school. Today, CTE provides a vastly different pathway, one that leads to high school graduation, higher education and meaningful middle-class, 21st-century jobs in skilled trades, applied sciences and technology.”

The Potential for CTE

The focus and goals of CTE have changed. Teacher and education blogger Michael Niehoff writes, “CTE works to engage students, create meaningful ways to build skills and learn content, and get students thinking about their long-term career path and educational needs.” With its “career pathways, industry standards, professional advisory groups, internships and other work-based learning,” Niehoff continues, CTE “is now standards-driven and working to respond to our new global economy.”

Furthermore, Weingarten says CTE programs offer education and training in many more current career areas “to prepare students for a career at whatever point they decide to pursue one and to align high school CTE with post-secondary options.” Even for legacy trades such as woodworking and auto repair, technical training is necessary because the technologies now used in those jobs require it.

For instance, today’s woodworking students must be able to read blueprints, create detailed drawings and use tools very different from 20th-century carpentry. The same is true in the auto industry. Mechanics — now called “automotive technicians” — must use computerized instruments to diagnose and repair digital components common in current vehicles. And students now have the option to study electric vehicles powered by batteries and fuel cells and, perhaps soon, the next big automotive advance: autonomous vehicles.

In the 30 years since the re-branding, CTE programs have been made available to students ranging from middle school to post-secondary levels. “CTE is applicable to almost every educational age range,” according to Bri Stauffer, digital curriculum writer for Applied Educational Systems. “This is because students can understand fundamentals of any career as early as sixth grade, and they can build essential skills well into adulthood.”

Upon earning a certificate, diploma or degree, CTE students are equipped for jobs among 16 broad industry segments called career clusters. Each cluster is specific to a variety of high-demand jobs and careers.

CTE’s Career Clusters


Popular Careers

Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources

Wildlife Administrator, Agronomist

Architecture and Construction

Construction Technology, Construction Inspector

Arts, Audio/Video Technology and Communications

A/V Technician, Audio Engineer

Business, Management and Administration

Human Resources, Business Management

Education and Training

Training Consultant, Safety Specialist


Accountant, Controller

Government and Public Administration

Project Manager, Zoning Specialist

Health Science

Nursing, certified medical assistant

Hospitality and Tourism

Assistant Hotel Director, Reception Manager

Human Services

Social Worker, Rehabilitation

Information Technology

Network Specialist, Information Tech Solutions

Law, Public Safety, Corrections and Security

Criminal Justice, Law Enforcement


Production Specialist, Materials Manager

Marketing, Sales and Service

Marketing Specialist, Data Analyst

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Mechanic, CAD Specialist

Transportation, Distribution and Logistics

Logistics Planner, Transportation Analyst

As two sides of the same coin, CTE (Career and Technical Education) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education prepare students for various well-paying lines of work. The Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Curriculum and Instruction in STEM Education online program from Southern Oregon University includes coursework designed to “expand your understanding of practices and opportunities in career and technical education.”

Learn more about Southern Oregon University’s online Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Curriculum and Instruction in STEM Education program.


NCES: What Is Vocational Education?

AEI: The Evolution of Career and Technical Education: 1982 – 2013

EdSurge: Vocational Education is Out; Career and Technical Education Is In

Applied Educational Systems: What is Career & Technical Education (CTE)?

Getting Smart: What CTE “Gets,” What CTE Needs to “Get” More

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