Are Atlanta Students Ready To Compete in A Global Market?

Cameron Sublett, Associate Professor of Education at Pepperdine University and David Griffith, Senior Research and Policy Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, are co-authors of a new report and the piece below on How Aligned is Career and Technical Education to Local Labor Markets?

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Are Atlanta high school students ready for tomorrow’s job market? Atlanta’s job market is hot, and local employers are “begging for graduates” who can weld or operate advanced machinery. Yet, unless something changes, many Atlanta-area high school students won’t be ready to seize these opportunities when they graduate, especially if they don’t go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.

For as long as anyone can remember, American high schools have mostly failed to provide their students with genuinely marketable skills. Consequently, kids whose parents can’t afford to send them to a fancy college have been left with an unsavory choice between crushing debt and likely unemployment.

But of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. In recent years, a growing number of “career and technical education” (CTE) programs have sought to bridge the gap between what students learn and what local labor markets demand, typically through a combination of specialized courses and hands-on apprenticeships.

In a new study, we took a closer look at that gap by examining the relationship between the kinds of CTE courses high school students take and the kinds of jobs that will likely be available to them – national and locally – when they finish their education.

Nationally, we found that approximately half of the jobs that currently exist are in four big fields: Business Management & Administration (18 percent), Hospitality & Tourism (13 percent), Marketing (12 percent), and Manufacturing (9 percent). Yet only one of these fields – Business Management & Administration – sees significant course-taking in high school. Worse, most students appear to be dabbling—taking electives across various fields instead of “concentrating” in a single one, which prior research suggests can improve their odds of success in college and the workplace.

Arguably, the picture is a little more positive in the Atlanta region. For example, compared to their peers in the rest of the U.S., kids in Atlanta take about 50 percent more courses in “Business Management & Administration” — no huge surprise, given the number of local start-ups. And at least some Atlanta kids are taking multiple CTE courses in higher-paying fields such as IT and Health Science.

Still, in some ways, the local picture is not so different from the depressing national picture. For example, despite the fact that Atlanta has more CTE activity than most major cities, of the four big fields that support over half of Atlanta-area jobs—Marketing; Hospitality & Tourism; Business Management & Administration; and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics — none has a local concentration rate that exceeds 4 percent. In other words, the local demand for suitably-qualified young people in these fields is still far greater than the local supply.

In our view, these results highlight the enormous potential for greater alignment between what Atlanta kids take in high school and what local employers will be looking for when they graduate. Simply put, despite the current enthusiasm for career-oriented education, few A-Town youngsters are actually experiencing it in any meaningful way. So it’s critical that the local business and education communities join hands to point more students in the right direction – or at least, a direction – without closing any doors or sacrificing their general education.

Obviously, figuring out exactly what that means for a particular student is a longer conversation. But it’s one we ought to start having a bit sooner, if we truly care about the fate of every student.

After all, today’s boom won’t last forever. And regardless of who makes varsity, or gets asked to prom, or is voted “most likely to succeed,” tomorrow will be here before they know it.


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