Three high school students in hard hats and coats hold tools and give thumbs up sitting atop wood on a house building project site


A Career Education Paradigm in Massachusetts

David J. Ferreira has spent his career in the Bay State’s impressively successful voc-tech system. As coeditor of a book on these schools, he’s spreading the good news to a nation hungry for new models.

Over the last 18 months, communities across the country have discovered, invested in, recommitted to, or otherwise embraced career-focused education. Nationwide reporting—from California to North Carolina, from Chicago to New York—has focused on educators, administrators, families, and students in red and blue states alike giving a hard look at what comes after high school, or even what to study while in high school to better prepare kids for adulthood. As WorkingNation put it in March, “The intersection of work and education is here.”

To which Massachusetts responds, “Welcome to the party.”

In the Bay State, the future has been now for career and technical education (CTE) for more than a century. Beginning with the opening of Smith School in Northampton in 1908, Massachusetts developed a robust network of industrial schools aimed at training young people to work in shops and factories. (Industrial education in America generally dates to the 1830s.) By mid-century, these vocational-technical (voc-tech) schools minted future plumbers, auto mechanics, machinists, and hairdressers. As the 21st century approached, careers like computer-aided designer and programmer were added to the roster.

The voc-tech system got an overhaul with the Massachusetts Reform Act of 1993, which put a renewed emphasis on academics and ensured these students met the same standards as everyone else. Some in the vocational community worried this would harm the system, but quite the opposite happened. “By using the tools of education reform, Massachusetts voc-tech students now score on par with or higher than, academically, their peers in comprehensive high school,” David J. Ferreira said in a June webcast. “They produce students who are prepared for careers in trade and industry, while achieving high graduation rates, microscopic dropout rates, and having more than 5,000 students on waitlists.”

Ferreira has spent decades in voc-tech education, as a teacher and leader. He’s currently the communications coordinator of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, and, along with journalist Chris Sinacola, the coeditor of Hands-On Achievement: Massachusetts’s National Model Vocational-Technical Schools, published by the Pioneer Institute in June. The book is a history, celebration, and case for the Massachusetts voc-tech model specifically and CTE generally. Not that anyone has to twist arms too much, based on the glut of recent headlines. And to help teachers, administrators, and leaders implement voc-tech-style models in their communities, the Pioneer Institute released a toolkit earlier this month with tips and recommendations for creating a successful career-focused program.

To learn more about voc-tech education in Massachusetts, The Elective recently spoke with Ferreira to discuss the state’s model, the increased role of computer science in all sorts of non-programming careers, and the future of vocational education in Massachusetts.

Photo of David J. Ferreira, left, and a cover of the book Hands-On Achievement, right

Steven C. Sharek, Pioneer Institute

Massachusetts has a 100-plus-year history of vocational-technical education. Is there something in the state that made it uniquely fertile ground for voc-tech to take root?

Career and technical education, CTE, is the general term that most states use today, and I think it could take root anywhere. There is a long history of voc-tech education in Massachusetts, but it was perceived years ago at a much lower level; "vocational" had a negative connotation. I think the difference came with the leadership and commitment of having an associate commissioner, back when this turnaround took place [in 1993], that believed if we taught using experiential and applied learning and focused on kids and added integrated academics that we'd have the best of two worlds.

One of the keys to that is giving kids enough time to spend in the vocational program. We went from a schedule where about a third of our time was teaching academics and two-thirds was spent in shop class to a 50-50 split. So half of the time, our kids are in the same vocational program with the same three or four teachers for half of their high school career. It becomes almost a small family of about 30 kids that bond together with these teachers who are their mentors, many times become their guidance counselors, and who observe students in a different way than an academic teacher would be able to in a 45-minute class. You get to know when kids are coming to school hungry. You get to know when they're having family issues. You get to know when they're having social or emotional problems. You bond with them. The kids get to trust those adults as part of their family, and the adults in turn can get the help that the kids need. It's all about these kids and concentrating on their needs as individual human beings, not just numbers going through academic classes day to day.

I think the autonomy and uniqueness of our program can be replicated anywhere, as long as you make the commitment to schedule. You can't do major projects in a shop setting and have a student tearing apart a car if, after two periods or 90 minutes, they have to go to academic classes and somebody else takes over halfway through. They need to learn how to work. And you learn how to work by doing your job, in our case because it’s an educational setting, for six hours a day. But if you have that opportunity and you do it for a week straight, you begin to learn about those kinds of skill sets you need to be successful in the workforce: getting to school every day, getting to class or shop on time, bearing down and focusing on your work, and working with supervision but learning to do things independently. I think that's a big key to what we do.

Coming out of the pandemic, we hear a lot about people rethinking their careers and students and their families rethinking college and the costs and debt that come with it. Are we uniquely primed for the growth of voc-tech or CTE and maybe a reconfiguration of what post-high school life looks like?

I think you're spot on on the whole post-pandemic situation and college debt issue. The cost of college today is just staggering, and with certain majors, even If you graduate, there's not a high demand for some of them, so getting a high-paying job isn't as easy as it maybe once was. We have a president who's trying to reduce college debt. There's two ways to do it: One is the federal government can print money and pay off some of the debt that belongs to the student. The other is we can look at whether or not going to college or never graduating from college is really the best way to prepare for a career.

We might be facing a recession, and certain things during a recession don't change. One of those is the need for skilled craftsmen, tradesmen, and service industries. If you have a plumbing problem, you're going to want a plumber. And they're hard to find, at least in Massachusetts. Plumbers make a tremendous salary in Massachusetts. And it's an older population of licensed plumbers—the average age of a plumber and electrician today in Massachusetts is in their 50s. They're looking at retirement, so getting into the field is actually easier now than it was 10 years ago. There are a lot of opportunities for young men and women who have been properly trained to become plumbers and earn a middle-class income, at a minimum.

So I think it's a combination of things, but certainly all of these factors that you've mentioned and I've mentioned makes the time right for the success of Massachusetts voc-ed and for CTE across the country to shine, and for more parents to become aware and have a more current image of what we do and what a benefit it can be for their children.

Female high school student wearing a hard hat and plastic face shield using a grinder on a car wheel, creating sparks


"You can't do major projects in a shop setting and have a student tearing apart a car if, after two periods or 90 minutes, they have to go to academic classes," Ferreira says. "They need to learn how to work."

I want to loop this into something written in the book’s foreword: "This right to self-determination promotes social mobility and is at the heart of American democracy. At the same time, policymakers and the public must remember that these [voc-tech] schools are not for everyone. To ensure their continued success, they must be reserved for students whose families actively choose this type of education or career pathway." This struck me as absolutely right, but also in conflict with parents' desiring the best possible future for their kids. So how do you ensure that the most kids and families have access to voc-tech education while also protecting it for who will actually benefit? Is there a tension there?

There certainly is a tension there. The number one factor for all of us in voc-tech ed is a student’s desire to be there. This is something that you have chosen to do—you have to want to come to the school, not because Mom and Dad said you have to. It does create some problems because getting the message to youngsters and parents who are in this seventh- and eighth-grade age category is a challenge. Our schools offer open-house activities on weekends and nights so parents and kids can come in and see the facility. But unfortunately, because of the testing that made us move and look more strongly at academic standards, there is also the accountability that takes place prior to high school in all of the other grades. So if the state is measuring your school success and the big barometers of that are scores on math, science, and English tests, where are you going to spend most of your time teaching kids? On math, science, and English. So things like career education have kind of been phased out of the middle school, junior high grades. Careers are not something kids get into.

I'm much older than you, but when we go back and look at my career there were programs and opportunities for home economics, graphic design, and CAD [computer-aided design], though back then it was drafting. And you would take a period out of your day to work in one of those areas, go through different ones, and then begin thinking about what different alternatives are out there. We don't do a lot of that today. Now, in those schools that allow it, we actually will have kids come tour the facility during the school day and experience the various programs. Watching a video is one thing, but kids need to see something in action to make sure they feel comfortable about applying to that school. And that's where the friction comes in a little bit. If you don't want certain kids to leave your school, maybe you don't want to expose them to that kind of career day or whatever it is that's happening. That's unfortunate, but that's something we deal with.

How much of that challenge is demonstrating that these jobs—mechanic, craftsman, plumber—are also technology jobs, or at least technologically driven?

I think that's important. And, again, unless you see what advanced manufacturing is today, you're never going to want to go into that trade as a 16-year-old or a 14-year-old. Or Mom and Dad might say that's absolutely out because, depending on their age, they may have an image of an old mill where people are using lathes and milling machines and grinders for fabrication. The reality today is it's so digitized.

Advanced manufacturing is all computerized numerical control machines, meaning an operator, once they program this $50,000 machine, can operate five or six of them in a real-life setting and all of them are making multiple parts, where years ago it took one person on one machine to make one part. You can't believe what that machine does unless you actually see a high school-aged student programming and operating one of them. Or take plasma cutting machines, which cut pieces of steel and is controlled by a computer that has to be programmed by the operator. And with automobiles, you've got to plug it into the module and that'll tell you what's going on and what's wrong and what needs to be repaired. You can't just lift the hood and figure out what's going on—you need the right diagnostic equipment.

That's the world we live in today. It's only going to get more automated. Are there service occupations that the digital age hasn't affected as much? Absolutely. Cosmetology, for example, or barbering. The health field, nursing, it's still hands-on. Wanting to work with patients, particularly elderly people, and meeting their needs and kindness, learning compassion, those kinds of skill sets aren't going to change. But certain occupations are far different than certainly when I was younger, or even when you were younger.

Female teacher in a hard hat and face mask demonstrating a tool to a group of six high school students in a shop class environment


The teachers students work with in Massachusetts voc-tech schools form an important bond. "The kids get to trust those adults as part of their family, and the adults in turn can get the help that the kids need," Ferreira says.

What's the role of computer science then in voc-tech schools?

Computer science today—my son is a computer software engineer and systems analyst for Boston Scientific, and the stuff he works on, he tries to explain it to me, and after about two minutes, I'm lost. And he's forever upgrading his skills. That field moves so quickly. So I think some of our programs certainly are more likely to lead to postsecondary education than direct employment. There's networking and the programming aspect, obviously, program development and analysis. But there's also the website kinds of work and learning. There's graphic design, which is huge today. And again, that's all computerized. Web and graphic design are both occupational programs where a lot of kids do go into postsecondary education. They take the skill sets and they go on to the community college and get some advanced skills and then employment after that.

But sometimes some of the kids, for example a lot of our health assisting students, they’ll get certified as a nursing assistant and go on to nursing school and use their CNA [certified nursing assistant] skills to help supplement their income while they're in college. And there’s a high demand for CNAs, both in the long-term care and in the acute-care setting, so they can make pretty decent money while still going to school, which helps them to go to that next level on the career ladder.

You never want to shut off a youngster. We are preparing them for a specific occupation but also a career pathway, where within that there are many different branches that you can go out into and get additional training, moving at a specific direction within that career path.

The last chapter of the book describes first-generation and second-generation vocational schools and says we're now in the third generation of voc-tech education now. You've worked in this area for a long time—what does the next generation of this experience look like? Are we approaching it? Are we in it?

I've done a lot of these interviews, but I've got to tell you, that's the first time anyone has ever asked me that question. I'm not so sure I know the answer. I guess I could play it safe and say it's always evolving. And I go back, I guess, to what I said earlier about the world of work is constantly changing because of the digital age and our connection to business and industry requires that skill sets the kids are learning always have to be improved.

One of the things we have to look at are new occupational pathways that are coming down the chute that we might not know about now. Robotics was a big deal when it started, but everything's robotic now. So what is that next step? And what are those new occupational skill sets that we need to put into our schools? And are there some that need to be phased out or combined somehow? It's our responsibility, being connected to business and industry and working with the state Department of Education, to see what needs to change. We can't be stagnant.

Now, whether or not the model of the way we provide it is going to change, I don't see that happening in the immediate future. I think what we're doing now is good. I think what we need here in Massachusetts is more access. We have, round figures, 52,000 students in these schools. But we also have 5,000 kids on waiting lists who can't get into voc-tech programs. There are just not enough seats. So the fourth generation might be the addition of more high-tech, state-of-the-art voc-tech schools, or expansion on the existing ones to allow even more kids to access what we do.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.