Higher ed elevates CTE

How community colleges are rebranding career training to reflect advanced pathways and earnings potential

Community college leaders who have launched campaigns to rebrand career and technical education say they face a generational challenge.

Today, parents and even many high school guidance counselors cling to a perception that these vocational programs appeal only to less ambitious students or lead to low-paying careers.

“For an entire generation, we had the idea that CTE was somehow ‘less than’ and ‘not as good as,’” says Eric A. Heiser, CTE director and dean of the School of Applied Technology & Technical Specialties at Salt Lake Community College in Utah.

“But technology has taken over. You’d better have some pretty good tech chops to get yourself in the door of a lot of mechanical fields.”

SIDEBAR: 8 ideas for CTE marketing

His college’s CTE rebranding effort, called Job to Career, launched in August with ads on TV, radio and social media, and at job fairs and in local high schools.

Other schools and entire state two-year systems are also ramping up their marketing efforts to convince traditional and nontraditional students of the earnings potential of today’s CTE degrees and certificates—and to compete more effectively with for-profit trade schools.

“For nonprofits, it’s advertising that they aren’t just preparing students for low-salary, entry-level careers,” says Daniel Thomas, managing research director for higher education at the consulting firm Hanover Research.

“They’re also stressing the benefits to the local region, and fulfilling the mission as a community-driven body to train students in areas of the economy that aren’t getting sufficient employees.”

Changing gender roles

The Louisiana Community and Technical College System tailored its new marketing push to women and the CTE fields in which they have been underrepresented.

The campaign, Louisiana’s Workforce Needs Strong Women Like You, focuses on 10 in-demand professions, including welding and manufacturing.

Facebook ads are targeted toward women who applied but never enrolled in a Louisiana community college, and who expressed interest in STEM on their applications, says Quintin D. Taylor, the system’s chief public affairs officer.

When Facebook users respond to the ad, the 12-college system request personal information that was then entered into a recruiting platform. In exchange, the users receive a free T-shirt.

The ads have reached 12,000 women and about 275 have enrolled. The campaign cost only about $6,000, including the shirts.

The system’s next campaign will encourage men to consider careers such as nursing and teaching. Also, in the coming year, system leaders hope to bring back students who have completed CTE programs to serve as spokespeople.

“People are realizing that to get a well-paying job quickly, CTE is a valuable option,” Taylor says.

Don’t get technical

The word “technical” disappeared from California Community Colleges’ ongoing marketing campaign. That’s because research indicated the word limited potential students’ perception of the CTE programs to IT and coding, says Paul Feist, the vice chancellor for communications and marketing.

System educators now promote “career education.” The phrase, in use since 2017, should help students envision careers in fields such as hospitality management and automotive, Feist says.

Research also showed that students considered two-year CTE programs as second or third options to four-year schools and transferring out of community colleges and into four-year schools.

“A lot of people didn’t know community colleges offer these types of programs; they thought they were offered by for-profits,” Feist says. “We wanted to raise awareness of a viable postsecondary option that can lead to well-paying jobs.”

The $6 million campaign also unifies a marketing message that the California system’s 114 colleges were previously trying to communicate on their own. Still, half the money for the campaign went to individual campuses to tailor ads to local economic needs, Feist says.

Along with potential earnings, the campaign touts the hands-on and collaborative nature of many CTE jobs. Those components appealed strongly to prospective students during precampaign research, Feist says.

“We don’t have the budget to be on TV like some for-profits, but there are a lot of different strategies we’re using,” Feist says. Those approaches include targeted digital marketing, radio ads and plenty of on-the-ground outreach that includes a virtual reality experience.

High school students who visit the California Community Colleges booth at a college fair can put on a pair of VR goggles that simulate a CTE lab or a professional work situation.

‘Money talks’

Proof of Utah’s commitment to CTE lies in a $50 million workforce center funded entirely by the state. The facility, which opened in August on Salt Lake Community College’s campus, will house 12 CTE programs.

Heiser calls his college’s marketing campaign, which mirrors a statewide effort, part of a “seismic shift.” His pitch, which focuses on future earnings, resonates more powerfully with today’s high school graduates and midcareer professionals looking to upgrade their skills or change careers.

The college also touts its competency-based learning philosophy that allows students in many CTE programs to progress at their own pace.

One of the best ways to recruit older professionals is with hands-on demonstrations at job fairs, he adds. And when it comes to persuading parents and guidance counselors, the college promotes a two-word philosophy: “Money talks.”

“With those two audiences, we ask, ‘When was the last time you looked at the average salaries in these fields?’ and they say, ‘Well, I haven’t,’” Heiser says. “They’re going off of self-perceptions formed when they were growing up.”

The campaign—backed by a $100,000 state grant and about $60,000 of the college’s own funds—informs parents that a diesel mechanic in Salt Lake City can make up to $65,000 per year right out of college, while welders can earn up to $75,000 and truck drivers, $90,000.

“An auto mechanic can’t say, ‘I don’t do computers,’ and companies know they have to pay for talent,” Heiser says. “It’s not just grease monkeys and dirty, smoky shops anymore.”

Competing with for-profits

Public institutions’ CTE campaigns must compete for students’ attention with flashier ads by for-profit institutions that are often backed by deeper marketing budgets.

While for-profits may air TV commercials during national broadcasts, community colleges generally run their ads locally or regionally, says Thomas, of Hanover.

One reason: For-profits target working professionals and adults who are more likely to be watching TV than the younger students recruited by community colleges.

“The challenge for community colleges is really positioning themselves as institutions where students want to enroll in CTE programs, as opposed to four-year schools,” he says. “For for-profits, it’s convincing students of the overall credibility of their programs.”

While the average for-profit spends substantially more on marketing, the nonprofits have ramped up their advertising budgets, particularly on social media and the internet.

“For-profits try to be quite cutting-edge in terms of delivery methods and how they present their courses,” Thomas says.

“Community colleges are playing a bit of catch-up—but becoming more sophisticated about highlighting the online and flexible nature of the courses.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor at UB.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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