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The United States is currently struggling with depressed rates of labor-force participation. There are 11 million underemployed adults, 7 million youths disconnected from work, and damaging shortages of high-value workers across a range of industries. Excellent career and technical education can salve all of these wounds.

And with work being the starting point for so many other kinds of success, it is hard to think of a more fertile ground for philanthropists who want to aid struggling neighbors than career and technical education.

A simple start could be had in many instances simply by redirecting resources currently being poured into conventional school or college grants. There are many local nonprofits that can be invested in. A donor’s business might be used to create apprenticeship or internship opportunities. Alliances with business associations and community colleges hold great promise. There are national models that could be transferred to your local scene—or vice versa. Philanthropists with a taste for organizing and leadership might use their influence to draw together companies, schools, and charities.

“One of the things that makes CTE work so very exciting is that initiatives can be organized in any number of ways—by corporations, by schools, or by nonprofits,” notes Lucretia Murphy of Jobs for the Future. Over the past decade, nonprofits have learned valuable lessons about connecting needy populations with labor-force needs in their local communities. Realistic educators are understanding the power of CTE pathways to attract and hold students who are either more ambitious or less corrigible than average. Corporations are realizing how vital it is that they make sure there will be future employees capable of doing their crucial work in adequate numbers. When these various entities cooperate—often with the lubricant of philanthropy—accomplishments of high value to many parties become possible.

Following are some sample ways that you as a donor could take an immediate, useful role in career and technical education.

Investments under $50,000

Fund CTE scholarships

Follow in the footsteps of former Intel co-founder Andrew Grove. He sponsored community-college scholarships ranging from $500 to $5,000 specifically for students who wanted to transition to a technical job in the workforce rather than continue on to four-year college. He typically gave out 100 scholarships per year.

Invest in internships, apprenticeships, and real-world workforce exposures

“The heart of effective CTE is work experience,” write Tamar Jacoby and Shaun Dougherty in a recent Manhattan Institute report. Tap into your economic networks to fund company internships, create apprenticeships, or support existing programs. The need is significant: A recent survey by Accenture found that only 41 percent of companies offer any type of internship or apprenticeship for middle-skill jobs.

Ensure that CTE students still receive a broad education

While emphasizing practical job skills, good CTE programs also offer other elements of a well-rounded education. Donors can help fill out CTE programs by helping them create the base academic instruction that students need.

Fund essential soft skills training and moral education

Just as academics can’t be sacrificed, neither can soft skills training—the practical attributes of punctuality, diligence, and work ethic. CTE students must be able to think critically and function socially on the job. The value of technical training is muted without the underpinning of strong soft skills. Invest in schools that teach character, morals, and ethical behavior, skills conducive to a good life.

Partner with a small company in your area

Identify a CTE-rich economic sector in your geographic region and find a small company that lacks capacity to pay apprentices. Collaborate with them to fund a joint program that pays youths to apprentice while pursuing a two-year degree from a local community college. Target this initiative to low-income young people.

Fill tuition gaps for veterans at community colleges

As pointed out by Red Rocks Community College president Michele Haney, some veterans experience delays in receiving tuition assistance from the G.I. Bill, or funding gaps between programs or semesters that make it hard for them to stay on degree tracks. “We’re constantly looking for emergency funding for vets,” says Haney. “How do we take them over from one semester to the next? It becomes a real serious situation for them.” Bridge this gap with grants to a community college’s foundation.

Open alternatives in donor minds to the college-for-all mentality

Something as simple as sponsoring a visit to a local CTE program or community college so local philanthropists can see firsthand the value of CTE training could be useful here.

Give a CTE grant to a community college’s foundation

Many community colleges have nonprofit foundations attached that accept grants. This can be a prime entry point for donors ­wishing to make a difference in these crucial local schools. Identify the best attributes of CTE training at your local community college and consider earmarking funding for it through the foundation.

Realistic educators are understanding the power of vocational pathways to attract and hold students who are either more ambitious or less corrigible than average.

Support Project Lead The Way and other STEM initiatives in public and charter schools

PLTW is a proven success. But don’t limit your thinking. There may be other options for supporting STEM education in your local schools.

Educate community leaders on modern manufacturing

Manufacturing is changing rapidly in many industries, and modern firms have very specific needs that ought to be meshed with our education system. The Benedum Foundation has offered grants to support a communications plan known as Explore the New Faces of Manufacturing.

Help a nonprofit partner collaborate with a corporate initiative

There are many examples. Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania, for instance, has teamed up with the McKinsey Social Initiative’s Generation USA program to provide middle-skill jobs training. Donors could make a grant to Goodwill to help support this effort and others like it.

Provide seed funds for a pilot project

The Achelis and Bodman Foundations seeded the Woodlawn Cemetery Preservation Training Program with a $30,000 grant. “We were attracted to the program because it’s still in the pilot stage, and our funds are perhaps most useful in the early stages when a new idea is being tested and other donors are wariest. In later years when a program is running well, it has less trouble attracting support,” notes director John Krieger.

Purchase Career Cruising software for a school or nonprofit

This is a simple, low-cost way to help students begin thinking about vocation at an early age.

Serve on the board of a CTE-oriented nonprofit

Apply your expertise and experience to help a workforce nonprofit be more effective.

Investments of $50,000 to $250,000

Improve the image of career and technical education

CTE runs up against lots of old stigmas about vocational instruction, school “tracking,” and second-rate education. Help trumpet the myriad successes of the new brands of technical training, and particularly the importance of “middle-skill” instruction. Funding publications, newspaper editorials, blogging, and research can all help spread the word. Also consider supporting the Association for Career & Technical Education, or one of its state affiliates. These organizations promote the importance of career-oriented education. “Donors can play a role in elevating CTE, making it less of a fall back or career pathway for less capable students,” says Carrie Hauser, president of Colorado Mountain College.

Fund a robust evaluation tool for CTE programs

One obstacle to the spread of CTE initiatives today is that few evaluation methods exist. Donors can help schools, nonprofits, and partnerships better measure and assess their programs. The Corporation for a Skilled Workforce offers a benchmark report, evaluating workforce development groups, which might be used as a starting point.

Fund services, coaches, and mentors that back up CTE instruction

Many successful CTE programs rely on support measures that help stressed lower-level workers jump hurdles as they improve their skills for greater success in the future. Your local CTE efforts may need these kinds of supports. This is a very helpful niche for philanthropy to fill.

Invest in feeder schools

Good CTE programs need good candidates coming out of high schools. Trio Electric’s connection to KIPP and YES Prep charter schools in Houston was crucial to the success of their effort. Consider supporting schools that develop the right candidates.

Fund hard-to-fill faculty positions

It can be difficult to keep faculty positions filled for in-demand technical subjects. Experts well-positioned to teach can often earn significantly more at job sites, and existing teachers can sometimes let their technical skills slip and lose touch with the latest techniques employed in the marketplace. Consider creating a specific fund to support recruitment and salaries for such positions, and for helping existing faculty increase their knowledge of the latest technologies and approaches.

Create prizes for outstanding CTE programs

Like the Aspen Institute’s annual rankings of the most excellent community colleges, create a prize for CTE programs that excel.

Promote flexibility in CTE instruction

Georgetown University’s Failure to Launch report urges that flexible class times, along with paid internships, fellowships, and apprenticeships, “help young adults balance competing work and education demands.” Don’t make candidates fit the mold; reshape the mold to fit them if you want to avoid high dropout rates.

Help schools keep ahead of the technology curve

Consider investments that allow a local school or nonprofit to update its buildings, software, and machines to make certain students are being trained at the state of the art.

Investments of $250,000 to $1 million

Help schools and employers forge alliances

Break down barriers between educational institutions and employers. Encourage employers to better identify their talent needs, and push educational institutions not to worry that they will lose their academic independence if they tailor programs that bring students and jobs together.

Don’t make candidates fit the mold; reshape the mold to fit them if you want to avoid high dropout rates.

Expand the vision of your alma mater

Work with your alma matter (or universities and colleges in general) to do a better job of linking graduates with jobs. Accenture research shows that just 4 percent of job seekers say that schools and universities are the best source of information on job opportunities. And encourage four-year colleges and universities not to neglect new technical fields (like in many branches of computer programming) where multiyear education is needed and there are far too few graduates to meet economic demand.

Help entry-level workers jump to the next level

Countless nonprofits across the country do a stellar job of taking individuals without a successful economic history and showing them how to succeed in entry-level jobs. There is much less philanthropic work taking place, however, to help low-level workers improve their skills to a middle level. Earmark funding specifically to help a worthy workforce nonprofit make this significant jump.

Invest to improve graduation rates at two-year colleges

This would pay many benefits, to students and the national economy alike. It will require better screening, improved adult basic education, improved counseling and coaching, cost control, more roadmapping of degree paths, and improved support services.

Endow a scholarship at a community college to reach a specific subpopulation

If your giving is oriented around a particular subpopulation—such as veterans or students with STEM talents, or ex-prisoners—consider endowing a scholarship at a community college with solid CTE programs, aimed at that specific population.

Fund a national or regional association that helps CTE educators and the organizers of middle-skill jobs initiatives collaborate

Set up a mechanism that helps participants gather on a regular basis, share ideas, and set long-term priorities.

Fund a CTE curriculum at a community college or technical school

Following the example of donor Karen Buchwald Wright and the Ariel Corporation, create a CTE curriculum in schools in your geographic location.

Investments of $1 million or more

Create a major database of unfilled jobs and correlate it with available or needed CTE training

A major obstacle to successful CTE program is ignorance about the plentiful job opportunities available in technical and trade fields. As suggested by the McKinsey Global Institute, creating a national database showing what jobs are most in demand (and where) would be of incredible use. Similarly, a Georgetown University report recommends creating a learning and earning exchange, an “information system that links high-school and postsecondary transcript information about courses taken and grades with employer wage records. Such a system would allow all to see how successful various programs are at producing ­job-ready graduates.”

Help a successful local organization expand nationally

Groups like Per Scholas have already made the leap from local to national activity. Provide the funding to take other nonprofits or schools to a wide audience.

Launch a foundation at your local community college

Locate a community college in your area that is effective at career education. If the institution doesn’t already have a foundation, provide the seed money for starting one. Such foundations are often important in launching new job-linking ventures.

Make CTE a part of broader higher education reforms

Postsecondary reforms tend to focus mainly on four-year schools, but you as a donor can work to ensure that two-year schools and certification programs aren’t left out of the discussion.

Donors have a powerful role to play in the rise of career and technical education, and they can begin right in their backyards. Your own alma mater, your local community college, nearby schools, the ­workforce-development nonprofits that exist in most counties, regional businesses hungry for partners who can help them solve crippling skill shortages—these institutions can often become successful partners in transitioning workers from lower-skill work into vocations that offer stable middle-class wages.

There is a delightful paradox in helping people qualify for middle-skill jobs. Philanthropic support for education that helps people become economically mobile unquestionably qualifies as a charitable good. At the same time, it makes practical business and economic sense. Investing in widening and strengthening the job-talent pipeline is a victory for all.

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