How to Pick the Right CTE Program and Instructor

This blog post was written by Brian Warren, Advanced Manufacturing and CNC Programming Instructor: The Gene Haas Advanced Manufacturing Center at Meridian Community College. We share it here with his permission and our thanks.  Read the full article here.

Career and Technical Education is a great college choice for 2023 high school graduates. Talk about a good return on investment, career and technical students can usually graduate in two years or less, and in many instances, they can demand a salary that will make some university graduates green with envy. I recently gave some advice to a family friend who has chosen CTE as their college choice. I am not a education philosophy scholar by any means, but I have spent over 20 years in career and technical education as a student, instructor and department chair at various points. I thought it may be helpful to someone else who is thinking choosing a career path in CTE. It is a great choice, but one that some thought should be invested into. These are my own personal views based on my experience and in no way reflect any company or college I am affiliated with.

So, this is my unsolicited advice on how to select the right CTE program and instructor.

Image note: Students and teachers gather round to put into practice one of the computer programs. Third from right is Brian Warren, one of the co-teachers for this special summer Haas Technical Education Center Teacher Training session.

1. Do not pick a career tech program solely based on an occupational job title. The instructor always makes or breaks the effectiveness of the program, so not all career tech programs are equal. Do your research on that particular program and institution before enrolling and committing. Even if it is an in demand occupation, if the instructor is known for putting out subpar graduates, doesn’t enjoy teaching anymore, and/or is more focused on enforcing arbitrary rules than teaching skills, you may find job opportunities few and far in between with lower than average entry level pay rates. Worse than that, you may not have learned all you were entitled too, thus setting your career up on the wrong track or for failure.

2. Interview the instructor before deciding. Ask the instructor for success stories of recent graduates. Ask about their work experience and teaching experience, both are equally important. Ask if you can talk to a graduate and a current student about their experience. Ask how many people started the program last semester compared to how many finished it. Ask what companies recruit/hire from them and what are the average compensation offers. Ask them to tell you about the program and what to expect after graduation. If they primarily highlight positive outcomes and success stories, that’s a good sign. If they immediately go to all the reasons students are dropped from the program and are generally negative in attitude, that’s a red flag. Run, don’t walk, back to advising.

3. Explore all the program of study options and occupations the community college has to offer. Make a list of your top 2-3 choices and visit them all and do some research on those occupations. Don’t zone in on one particular program of study based off what someone else is taking. You may subconsciously pick a program based on misconceived familiarity with the job title or peer pressure, but not really understand what the work entails. You may spend two years learning a trade that you really don’t want to do only to discover another option that was much more interesting and appealing to you that you could have taken from the start. Over my time teaching CTE, I’ve had a lot of students who discovered CNC by working somewhere in a different role after finishing another program of study. They then enroll in my program to do another two years so that they can transition into a CNC role that offered better pay or working conditions than their previous role did. That student possibly could have saved a lot of time and money by exploring all the institution had to offer first.

4. Ask about the fees! Especially if you are on the fence deciding between what program to choose. Tuition is usually the same for all programs across the board, but the fees can vary greatly. There are standard fees that everyone at a college pays like parking, but CTE programs can add specific fees like lab and materials. One program in a health or industrial division could only have two hundred dollars of standard fees attached to it while another with the same earning potential for graduates could have over a thousand dollars of fees plus the standards attached to it. If you’re depending on financial aid or scholarships to cover the costs, the fees could eat away your potential refund. If you’re paying out of pocket while working and going to school like many non-traditional students are, excessive fees could literally eat your lunch and make it difficult to complete the certificate or degree.

5. Last but not least, inspect the facility. Dirty, cluttered, and disorganized labs or shops could indicate a disorganized program and instructor. Even if on the older side, the equipment should be clean, well maintained, and in working order. Tools and equipment should be stored properly in designated areas. If the learning lab is in disarray, the instructor’s lessons plans could be also, if they even have lesson plans. Disorganization could lead to a scenario where the instructor grades are based on no real evidence, averages, rubrics, or calculations: just their personal opinion of you. The day to day learning activities could also be just as disorganized. You’re going to spend 1-2 years of your life paying to work and learn in this environment. It should reflect your professional career ambitions and the confidence and pride the instructor and institution has in the program of study. It should not be treated with disregard or as personal workshop by the person who has been entrusted with not only the facility and equipment, but your education.