Panel: Vocational Education and the Labor Market

Thursday, November 7, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Governor's Square 16 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Organizer:  Riley K. Acton, Michigan State University
Panel Chair:  Kevin Stange, University of Michigan
Discussants:  Sade Bonilla, University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Brian Heseung Kim, University of Virginia

As workers without four-year college degrees struggle to gain footing in today’s labor market, the role of vocational education has received increased attention from governments around the world. For example, the United States recently re-authorized the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, providing billions of dollars to improve the quantity and quality of career and technical education (CTE). Yet, whether or not such policies are equipped to meet changes in the economy that result from technological change and globalization hinges on two issues: 1) Does the demand for vocational programs respond to changes in the labor market? and 2) Can these programs provide sustained returns to participants? This panel works to address these questions by bringing together experts from across economics and education policy to discuss connections between vocational education and the labor market across a variety of contexts. 

Two papers study the effects of labor market conditions on students’ decisions to pursue vocationally-oriented academic programs. The first, by Cameron Sublett and David Griffith, establishes a link between labor market data from the Occupational Employment Series with individual-level academic choices from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:2009) to establish the extent to which CTE course-taking behavior aligns with local employment demand. Using a high school fixed effects strategy, the authors find that course-taking increases when related occupations experience increased local employment but is not sensitive to changes in local wages. The second paper, by Riley Acton, seeks to establish the causal relationship between occupation-specific labor demand shocks and enrollment in related community college programs. By exploiting exposure to occupation-specific layoffs across cohorts within the same county, she finds that students who are exposed to local employment demand shocks during high school are less likely to enroll in related community college programs following graduation. These effects are strongest when layoffs occur during students’ senior years of high school but do not deter students from pursuing postsecondary education all together.

These papers are complemented by two papers that study the effects of vocational education on students’ own labor market outcomes. The first, by Jay Plasman, also uses HLS:2009 data to examine the labor market returns to CTE course-taking in high school for students who do not pursue postsecondary education. He finds large average returns to concentrating in a CTE program, but these returns vary substantially between occupational groups. The second, by Mikko Silliman and Hanna Virtanen, estimates the causal return to vocational secondary education in Finland using a regression discontinuity design. The authors find that admission to the vocational track increases annual income by 7% at age 31, with little evidence that earnings gain diminish over time.   

All four papers combine unique data sources with rigorous empirical methods to make meaningful contributions to the study of vocational education, both in the U.S. and abroad. Moreover, the panel is chaired and critically discussed by experts in field who will foster productive discussion between participants and audience members on the future of vocational education research, practice, and policy.

Does Proximal Labor Market Demand Predict Career and Technical Education Coursetaking in High School? Evidence from a National Sample
Cameron Sublett, Pepperdine University and David Griffith, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Labor Market Returns to Vocational Secondary Education
Mikko Silliman, Harvard University and Hanna Virtanen, The Research Institute of the Finnish Economy

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