When Co-Curriculars Spark Careers: Over 80 Years, How ‘Career and Technical Student Organizations’ Have Evolved From Bricklaying to Business Management to Robotics

Credit: TSA Facebook

As a high schooler, Kieron Kohlmann knew more about cars than the average person. But even then, he had no idea just how far that knowledge could take him.

He didn’t imagine he’d be winning global contests in automotive technology or training technicians at a major car company. And he certainly didn’t think his passion for cars would propel him toward a bachelor’s degree.

In fact, as a young teen, Kohlmann wasn’t even sure he wanted to go to college. But when he joined his high school automotive class in Racine, Wisconsin, he also joined SkillsUSA, a co-curricular that not only taught him how to fine-tune his craft but also sent him to test those skills in competitions around Wisconsin and the country. Cars went from being a hobby to a career path, landing Kohlmann a job at Chrysler headquarters in Auburn, Michigan — where, at age 27, he’s training technicians in the skills he’s learned over the past decade.

Kieron Kohlmann (WorldSkills)

Kohlmann is one of millions of students who have participated in Career and Technical Student Organizations, commonly referred to as CTSOs. Most of these organizations exist at schools with career and technical education classes; they give students hands-on experience in subjects ranging from agriculture to health care to technology.

There are nearly a dozen CTSO groups, and most have been around for decades, preparing students for jobs after high school by adding hands-on training to their academic work. But as the workforce has changed, so have the organizations and the students they serve. Whereas the majority of students in the 1960s could enter the middle class with only a high school diploma, now the majority of well-paying jobs belong to those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

That’s why the CTSOs of today teach not just technical skills but also soft skills — leadership qualities like collaboration and communication that businesses today say are necessary for the modern workforce. They also serve a student population that is now more likely to go to college, so their programs must cater to those who want to pursue higher education as well as careers.

It is difficult to know how well and equitably these organizations are doing that. Little data is kept on the demographics and achievement of participating students, and the research that does exist is so small that a report from the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the University of Minnesota referred to it as a “black box.” But the information that does exist indicates that CTSOs may increase engagement and employability skills and may particularly benefit women and students of color.

Former students who participated in CTSOs in the past 10 years told The 74 that these hands-on activities helped make their learning relevant, uncovered unknown interests, and prepared them for the high-level careers they have today.

“Going into a skilled workforce job now is different than it was 40 years ago,” said Emily Saed, executive director at the Minnesota Foundation for Student Organizations. “We have to look at that and recognize that we have to start providing people the education and the skills that they need to get a good job from a public education that’s free.”

As the workforce and education changed, so did CTSOs

For over a century, the federal government has supported vocational education and, starting in the mid-1900s, Career and Technical Student Organizations. But those organizations have evolved over the decades, just as education policy and the workforce have evolved — from serving students headed to work immediately after high school to preparing those with college ambitions. The 1983 A Nation at Risk report in particular helped spur a push for academic rigor across schools.

Just looking at the changing names of these organizations shows their history. Future Farmers of America, which has nearly 670,000 members, is now known as the National FFA Organization. It updated its name in 1988 because “FFA is not just for students who want to be production farmers; FFA also welcomes members who aspire to careers as teachers, doctors, scientists, business owners and more,” FFA’s national website states.

The National FFA Organization used to be known as Future Farmers of America. (Credit: FFA Facebook)

Future Homemakers of America became Family, Career and Community Leaders of America in 1999. The Office Education Association became Business Professionals of America in 1988.

Similarly, SkillsUSA, where Kohlmann was inspired to pursue an automotive career, was the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America until 2004. The organization expanded its offerings from traditionally male-dominated trades like welding and bricklaying to new skills such as information technology, robotics, graphic arts, and photography.

In the CTSOs of today, a high school student could participate in a criminal justice course that could lead to an entry-level job as a police officer or to a career path as an attorney, said Tim Lawrence, national executive director of SkillsUSA.

“It really is an entry point that will take students to any level that they choose, based on how hard they want to work and how much they want to apply themselves,” Lawrence said.

Currently, there are 11 federally recognized CTSOs that receive funding through the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.

CTSOs are called co-curriculars, rather than extracurriculars, meaning the activities are connected to what students are learning in class. But every school implements them differently. Some operate only during class, while others allow students time to work on activities before or after school.

“A good CTSO, a high-quality one, has a direct relationship to the curriculum,” said James R. Stone III, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the Southern Regional Education Board.

CTSOs usually are found in schools that offer courses in career and technical education — CTE — but that’s not always the case. Some students have founded CTSO chapters even if there isn’t a corresponding class, like engineering, at their school. But some states require that all CTE classes have an accompanying CTSO organization.

Credit: TSA Facebook

Nikita Ermoshkin, an engineer at SpaceX, found in his high school Technology Student Association chapter in North Carolina a much-needed hands-on method for learning that he couldn’t find in his classes. He always knew he enjoyed building things, but it wasn’t until TSA’s robotics projects that Ermoshkin discovered he was passionate about engineering. “TSA was the kick-starter for all these things,” he said.

Depending on the school and the subject, these classes and organizations can earn students college credit and industry certifications. Kohlmann was able to collect college credit in high school and do a paid apprenticeship that had him working on cars during the afternoon and attending classes in the morning and evening.

At some CTSO competitions, employers will be impressed enough to offer students jobs. Bart Taylor, a high school information technology teacher and college lecturer in Texas, said that during showcases, local cabinetmakers will judge student work and might hand teachers their business cards to gauge students’ interest in working for them. Saed said one company consistently comes to collegiate competitions put on by DECA — a CTSO that focuses on marketing and finance — to recruit students.

Still, Taylor said, the overwhelming majority of students in his high school IT classes go on to college. Students are attracted to the class because of its reputation and the expansive community service efforts the students undertake. Last year, they helped outfit a building with technology for homeless families.

“A majority of our students are pushed to be college-ready versus straight to a technical career after school, so a lot of our CTE courses that we offer go hand in hand with a college preparatory kind of thing,” Taylor said.

Next wave of workers: Leadership and soft skills

In this new wave of CTSO history, leadership preparation is a huge priority. A review of CTSO mission statements shows that 10 of the 11 organizations pledge to create future leaders. CTSOs also promise to build soft skills from teamwork to communication.

“You cannot learn soft skills in isolation,” said Kate Blosveren Kreamer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE. “Until you’re put in authentic situations where you need to work in a team to be successful, and you need to be interacting with adults, much like you would a future boss and people who are interviewing you, you can’t really model that just in a classroom.”

Many of the organizations incorporate these types of learning opportunities through competitions as well as natural student leadership positions, such as allowing students to run for local, state, and national office. This year, Business Professionals of America appointed its youngest-ever board of trustees chair: 25-year-old Cedric Bandoh.

Bandoh still remembers that day, during sophomore year of high school, when his business teacher pulled him aside to ask if he could help start a BPA chapter in Allen, Texas. Bandoh, who had considered pursuing a career in business or technology, agreed.

He ascended the student leadership chain at BPA, learned how to give speeches and conduct business meetings, and started working at Hewlett Packard.

“If you would have told me 11 or so years ago that I would be able to accomplish so much of what I’ve been able to accomplish … I probably wouldn’t have dreamed of it,” Bandoh said. “But that’s what the organization prepared me to do. … We have to invest in CTE. It’s not just vocational education in terms of the traditional sense. These organizations are really helping develop well-rounded leaders.”

And CTSOs are still evolving, with many expanding their offerings to middle schools. When Bandoh attends competitions, he meets middle schoolers dressed in suits, giving presentations.

“I was not like that in the sixth grade,” he said.

Brice Harader-Pate, now a nurse practitioner, was always interested in health care. But it wasn’t until she stepped into her first CTSO competition, in Wichita, Kansas, that she became interested in SkillsUSA. Her high school counselor had encouraged her health sciences class to participate in a statewide contest of cardiopulmonary resuscitation skills, and Harader-Pate found herself reviving mannequins, trying out defibrillators and practicing treating wounds on actors. She won first place.

Brice Harader-Pate stands in the first-place podium spot during the Kansas State SkillsUSA VICA Competition in 2003, after winning the CPR contest. (Courtesy Brice Harader-Pate)

Harader-Pate loved the organization so much that she chose to attend a two-year college over a larger four-year school that didn’t offer the CTSO (she later transferred to a four-year). During her freshman year at the community college, she was elected as a national officer and got to travel the country for meetings and give college tours promoting the program.

Being able to practice her health care skills in school and during competitions affirmed for Harader-Pate that medicine was the field she wanted to pursue. She thinks these kind of hands-on career opportunities should be more available to high schoolers.

“I didn’t waste time trying to figure out what I wanted to do after high school; I knew what I wanted to do,” she said. “If it wasn’t for that [hands-on training], who knows how long it would have taken me to find my career path?”

The “black box” — who do CTSOs serve?

For organizations that have been around as long as 80 years, CTSOs have been the subject of very little research.

Stone has worked on a few of those studies but said CTSOs haven’t been the focus of rigorous research to gauge how students benefit from them.

Some of the larger CTSOs have tried to track the types of students their organization serves and their postgraduation outcomes. SkillsUSA conducts teacher surveys, which, while prone to errors, reveal a faint sketch of the trajectories the students in their programs might follow. About one-fourth go on to a four-year college, another quarter pursue an associate’s degree or other postsecondary credential, and about one-third go directly into the workforce.

The populations these organizations serve can vary depending on the program’s focus. For example, FFA is often linked with agriculture classes; 56 percent of its chapters are located in rural areas, and most of its students — 68 percent — are white. SkillsUSA and FFA serve more men than women, but organizations like Family, Career and Community Leaders of America and Future Business Leaders of America serve more women than men.

SkillsUSA might be the most racially diverse. Of its 320,000 high school members, 52 percent are white, 28 percent are Hispanic, 13 percent are black, and 2 percent are Asian.

Clues about the racial makeup of CTSOs may be drawn from national data on students enrolled in career and technical education classes, Kreamer said. In the 2014-15 school year, the breakdown was 51 percent white, 23 percent Hispanic, and 16 percent black, practically the same as for overall enrollment in U.S. public high schools.

Credit: Advance CTE, with data from perkins.ed.gov and nces.ed.gov

Still, depending on the state, the school, and the CTSO, there can be barriers to participation. Some programs take place after school, shutting out students who don’t have transportation home. Others can’t afford to register for a CTSO or travel to competitions. Representation can be another issue, Kreamer said, as women or members of minority groups who don’t see students like themselves in the organizations might think they’re not for them.

Redmond Grigg, a middle school technology teacher in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, said he has found it challenging to retain students from underserved populations in his Technology Student Association. This year, Grigg is trying to connect with the local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, hoping their members can regularly visit his students to increase representation and provide mentorship.

“It seems to be something that is particularly important, especially in the last couple of years, with the country and the climate the way that it is, and seeing how that affects my students on the local level,” Grigg said.

But some students have found success even amid worry that they weren’t good enough for their chosen field. One of Grigg’s former students, Emily McAdams, was encouraged by Grigg to join the Technology Student Association when she was in middle school. She then went on to lead the organization at her high school. But even then, she wasn’t sure if she was capable of being an engineer.

During her junior year of high school, her robotics team placed sixth nationally, which convinced her she belonged in the field and encouraged her to apply to college engineering programs.

“I was on the fence: Do I really have the skills and the ability to build a robot? To program?” McAdams said. “That was the moment that really solidified, yes, I’m not just good at leading everybody and pulling everybody together, but I’m also good at the technical things, and it gave me the confidence to really pursue a pretty difficult path in engineering.”

McAdams became an engineer and worked in the field for a few years before heading back to school, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in business. She now helps write competitions for TSA that incorporate both the technical and professional skills the CTSOs hope to teach their students.

Bridging the equity gap

While it’s difficult to say how well CTSOs serve all students, some state-level administrators are trying to address inequities in their own communities.

The Minnesota Foundation for Student Organizations is one of them. The group gives about $20,000 a year to the state’s student organizations to help the poorest schools send students to competitions or provide professional development training.

But Saed, who runs the organization, said just bridging financial barriers didn’t solve all the problems. Teachers also needed training on how to better serve the students living in poverty. For example, a teacher might put up a sign that said, “Be a winner: Join a CTSO.” But some students from low-income backgrounds would be discouraged by that sign, she said, because they don’t see themselves as winners like their wealthier peers.

So Saed helps run training sessions in schools and CTSO chapters to address this. She’s also partnered with other state organizations and agencies — like Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development — to fund student participation in competitions as part of their workforce training initiatives.

“I can’t say enough about what student organizations do,” Saed said. “They really bridge the gap between school and the real world. And they give students a sense of pride, a sense of self-worth, and a sense of belonging.”

In an effort to promote equity, the Nevada Department of Education is starting to collect data on the demographics of students who participate in CTSOs, said Randi Hunewill, assistant director of CTE. She said she expects the first round of data — due this winter — to be incomplete but a good start.

In Colorado, administrators at the Department of Education started using a mapping tool to see where there might be gaps in the state’s CTSO programs. They noticed that rural areas in particular were missing out on opportunities in health sciences and STEM — a problem in a state with ample job opportunities in IT and health care.

“If we don’t have people getting those skills and those leadership development pieces of the CTSO, are we really doing them a disservice when it comes to trying to set themselves apart for interviews?” said Sarah Heath, state director and associate vice president of Career and Technical Education for Colorado.

Colorado is making an effort to address this, Heath said, by partnering with industry leaders and teachers in rural areas to try to make these hands-on career experiences available to more students.

The Carl D. Perkins Act was reauthorized this summer, and while there are no specific accountability measures attached to CTSOs, the law placed additional emphasis on encouraging CTSOs to serve students from nontraditional fields and special populations, like those who are homeless or in foster care. But educators said it remains to be seen how states will handle this.

Future of work

A few years ago, Kohlmann found himself in Germany, tearing apart the engine of a car. The vehicle was broken, and it was his job to identify the problem and fix it. The task was part of a WorldSkills global competition, where countries sent the best of their youth in career and technical education.

Kohlmann spent four eight-hour days not just competing but learning from his peers around the world and the different approaches they took to fixing problems he had spent years studying. It amazed him how prepared students were from other parts of the globe.

“You think of the U.S.A. as this huge superpower, and then we show up at these international contests and get our butts kicked,” Kohlmann said. “It just shows we don’t value it as much as other countries do.”

For Kohlmann, and for many of the former students and educators The 74 spoke to, CTSOs still carry a stigma from the ghost of workforce past. They said some people think of them as pathways away from college and into low-paying jobs. But the former students, many of whom found their passions in these organizations, discovered a future that’s just the opposite.

“To me, it’s the most fascinating thing when you go to a national contest and you see 10,000 students competing,” Kohlmann said. “I just think if people were more aware, they would also find it inspiring and interesting.”

Disclosure: This essay is part of a series of Future of Work stories sponsored by Pearson exploring how automation and evolving economic forces are impacting education from kindergarten through college.

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