When the Kitchen Is the Classroom

When the Kitchen Is the Classroom
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Why you should care

Because there’s more than one way to succeed in this economy.

OZY is coming together with JPMorgan Chase to bring you an inside look at how the world’s workforce is quickly changing - and the new opportunities for reinvention that are emerging. Enjoy the rest of our special series here and here.

Five young cooks move methodically around a professional-grade kitchen, pouring flour and eggs into a stand mixer and scooping balls of snickerdoodle dough onto baking sheets. They’re filling their largest order to date: 300 holiday cookie tins, to be sold at a local hotel. It’s the type of culinary production one usually sees in professional outlets. In this instance, the young chefs are high school students and the kitchen is their classroom at Lenoir City High School in Lenoir City, Tennessee. The class is part of the school’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, a form of vocational training that is making a comeback in schools across the country.

While CTE programs were once seen as reserved for students who couldn’t quite cut it academically, the rise in college tuition fees and student debt — as well as the high unemployment rate among millennials — has made them relevant again. According to The Institute for College Access & Success, young people make up 40 percent of the unemployed population in the U.S., and hold an average of $30,000 in student debt. Furthermore, for many young people, the four-year degree hasn’t panned out as promised.

Nearly half — 45 percent — of recent college graduates are underemployed, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

While being underemployed means working at a job below the employee’s training level, that’s not to assume that most college grads were working as baristas at Starbucks during the Great Recession. The largest share worked in offices, or administrative support, and they still earned more than those without college degrees.

Regardless, there is still a dearth in applicants for middle-skill level roles, which accounted for 54 percent of the nation’s jobs in 2012, eclipsing the number of available high-skill and low-skill opportunities combined. Yet despite the millions of young people looking for work, nearly six million middle-skills jobs were unfilled. Sensing an opportunity, educators and policymakers alike have become motivated to use CTE programs to fill those gaps. Last year, the federal government awarded more than $1 billion in grants for CTE programs.

Private companies are getting in on the act, too. Previously, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and JPMorgan Chase announced they would give nearly $20 million for 10 states, including Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Ohio, to dramatically increase the number of students who graduate from high school prepared for careers. The funding is part of JPMorgan Chase’s $75 million global New Skills for Youth initiative. Each of the funded states will work with government, business and education leaders to strengthen career education and create pathways to economic success for its high school students.

Homerooms can look like a scale model of a courtroom, dentist’s office, fully functioning coffee shop …

These days, CTE classes take place in rooms that resemble their professional equivalents. Homerooms can look like a scale model of a courtroom, dentist’s office, fully functioning coffee shop, working farm or hair salon, and former industry professionals often teach the classes. At Lenoir City High, a former respiratory therapist teaches an emergency responder course and a veteran engineer teaches freshmen how to pressure-test a scale model of a bridge.

This focus on regional opportunities affords administrators a level of flexibility rarely seen in curriculum design. For example, when the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce informed local CTE program director Tyra Pilgrim of a major shortage in medical lab technicians in the area, Pilgrim adjusted the county’s CTE offerings to start meeting the need. The Chamber also worked with a local community college to start a medical lab technician program.

For some students, CTEs are a quicker means to realize a dream. At Stewarts Creek High School in Tennessee, for example, audio production students are developing skills that give them an edge in nearby Nashville. One recent graduate, Jaylen James, is already working in the industry, selling beats to professional musicians who find his work online.