Career education evolves to meet students, employeers' needs

February is Career and Technical Education Month, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of important legislation. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 initiated a coordinated federal and state investment in quality high school career education.

It is hard to grasp now, but in early 20th century America, only 5 percent of public school students were in high school. Most left after the eighth grade to enter the workplace; families needed even the meager income a 14-year-old could earn. With curriculum concentrating on rote memorization and classical subjects, public education at the time did not convince students to stay in school.

A broad-based consensus developed among leaders in agriculture, labor, industry, social science and higher education: Young students needed practical application to stay engaged and motivated to complete high school.

The Smith-Hughes Act helped establish national standards - with a hands-on component - for high school vocational education in agriculture, home economics and the trades. As the years went by, supported disciplines expanded to include industrial arts, business and health occupations.

Midcentury, the legislation was amended to help states fund the first shared area career centers. This paved the way for the DuPage Area Vocational Education Authority, which opened in 1974 as the vocational precursor to what is now Technology Center of DuPage. Today, 14 member high school districts from DuPage County and Lyons Township share the use and operation of TCD.

At TCD's recent open house, we met up with an early beneficiary - an alumnus from 1979.

As a youngster, Louis "Skip" Perillo developed a passion for aviation. He took flying lessons at Schaumburg Airport, obtaining his pilot's license by age 17. Imagine his excitement when, as a Driscoll Catholic High School junior, he learned about an aviation maintenance program offered through the new DAVEA Career Center.

Perillo found the experience invaluable.

"It set me up for the rest of my career trajectory," he said.

The combination of challenging academic content and hands-on application totally engaged him and encouraged him to continue his education.

Perillo went on to Southern Illinois University, where he earned the Federal Aviation Administration airframe and power plant certificates and a bachelor's degree in aviation management. After working first as a safety inspector and a corporate pilot, Perillo spent more than 15 years as an Air Force pilot with the Wisconsin Air National Guard. Since 1990, he has been a commercial pilot with American Airlines.

Then, as now, Perillo's experience illustrates why career and technical education is not endpoint education for the non-college bound. It adds purpose to learning to the point of actually encouraging postsecondary education.

A century after Smith-Hughes, we are at another crossroads. It is estimated that by 2020, 65 percent of high-paying 21st century careers will require some form of postsecondary education, but not necessarily a bachelor's degree. How do we address the growing skills gap facing this rapidly changing economy while preparing students for careers in fields that don't yet exist?

The beauty of career and technical education always has been its adaptability. Our nation's investment in CTE continues today through the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. Its focus is on greater academic integration, sequential programs of study, dual credit (earning college credit while in high school), STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), and those highly-valued problem-solving skills.

A study by the Southern Regional Education Board found students who take both CTE and college prep courses meet college and career readiness goals at a higher rate than those who take college prep courses alone (80 percent vs. 63 percent). With 94 percent of all U.S. students taking at least one high school CTE course, it is plain that career and technical education is for everyone.

Increasingly, common CTE practices - project-based learning, work-based experiences and career pathways, to name a few - have become part of the broader educational landscape. This is evidence that CTE works in the 21st century. Learn more about CTE and national policy from the Association for Career and Technical Education at

A side note: Skip Perillo didn't visit Technology Center of DuPage for purely nostalgic reasons. His daughter has since added a TCD health care program to her senior schedule for 2017-18.

So begins the next 100 years of career and technical education.

• Mike Zimmerman is the director of the DuPage Area Occupational Education System, the governing body for Technology Center of DuPage and other CTE delivery sites in the region. TCD is the advanced CTE elective campus serving 14 high school districts in DuPage County and Lyons Township. Community members may schedule a personal visit or group tour by calling (630) 691-7572.

During a recent visit to Technology Center of DuPage by alumnus Skip Perillo, right, and his daughter Jennifer, center, instructor Marie Kmiec demonstrated the use of interactive SMART Board technology in the Healthcare Foundations program. A Lake Park High School student, Jennifer plans to enroll in the elective program her senior year. Courtesy of Technology Center of DuPage
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