Career and Technical Education: Definition, Benefits and Career Options

By Indeed Editorial Team

July 20, 2021

A career and technical education may be an option if you want an alternative to a traditional four-year college degree. It can also be helpful if you plan to pursue a university education but want to start learning real-world knowledge and skills before college. In this article, we explore what career and technical education are and the numerous career tracks available within the program.

What are career and technical education?

Career and technical education (CTE)—previously known as “vocational education or vo-tech”— is the practice of teaching specific tech-based and career-oriented skills to students. CTE offers skills to begin working in 16 different industries. Students can take CTE courses in middle school, high school and post-secondary institutions like community or technical colleges.

In middle school, CTE is taught as an elective in addition to students’ traditional courses. Computer applications courses are especially helpful for middle-school students. In high school, CTE is also taught as an elective but with much greater variety. Many high schools use CTE courses to prepare students for certifications that qualify them for specific careers.

Unlike traditional and university-based education that focuses on theory, CTE focuses on skills. The bulk of a career and technical education consists of hands-on experience, practice and application tests. With a CTE, students have experience before they start their careers.

Related: How To List Education on a Resume

Benefits of career and technical education programs

There are several benefits to education through a CTE program. They include:

  • Gaining work experience through job shadowing, on-the-job training, internships and industry certifications

  • Achieving higher graduation rates among students in CTE programs

  • Learning experiences that include several career tracks, industries and fields

  • Reaching more at-risk students with alternative education paths

  • Exploring both academic and career-oriented courses

  • Adapting to breakthroughs, best practices and industry advancements

  • Deepening community ties

Related: Technical Skills: Definitions and Examples

16 CTE program tracks

CTE programs are organized into different career clusters of occupations and industries based on the skills they require. These clusters branch into 79 different tracks that help students narrow their interests and design an educational plan that utilizes career technology to achieve their goals.

1. Agriculture, food and natural resources

Within the agriculture cluster, students prepare for careers in animal science, plant science, food products and processing, agrotechnology and environmental science. The resources help students understand how human life is sustained around the world. Agriculture is a wide-ranging field and students can go on to work as farmers, inspectors, lab technicians, administrators and researchers. If they prefer working indoors, they could work in a laboratory testing soil and building emissions for compliance.

Career paths include:

  • Agribusiness systems

  • Animal systems

  • Environmental service systems

  • Food products and processing systems

  • Natural resources systems

  • Plant systems

  • Power, structural and technical systems

Popular careers

Popular careers within the agriculture CTE program include:

  • Farmer

  • Agricultural inspector

  • Agronomist

  • Park ranger

  • Wildlife administrator

Related: 12 Careers in Agriculture To Explore

2. Arts, audio/visual technology and communications

This career path prepares students for work with audio/video technology and film, printing technology, performing arts, visual arts, telecommunications and journalism and broadcasting. Many students go on to pursue audio engineering, lighting technology and other similar careers.

Career paths include:

  • A/V technology and film

  • Journalism and broadcasting

  • Performing arts

  • Printing technology

  • Telecommunications

  • Visual arts

Popular careers

Popular careers within the arts CTE program include:

  • Artist

  • Audio engineer

  • Audio/visual technician

  • Lighting technician

Related: How To Become an A/V Technician

3. Business management and administration

Business courses are the most common CTE courses because they offer such versatility. It is one of the most popular courses in CTE because of its versatility in preparing students for almost every career. The program teaches students career planning, organizing, directing and evaluating the functions essential to productive business operations. It also gives students the knowledge needed to grow or start a business.

Career paths include:

  • Administrative support

  • Business information management

  • General management

  • Human resources management

  • Operations management

They can also earn certifications that demonstrate their knowledge and enhance their resumes, including:

  • Project Management Professional (PMP)

  • Certified Scrum Master (CSM)

  • Six Sigma Green Belt

  • Microsoft Office Specialist

Popular careers

Popular careers within the business CTE program include:

  • Business management

  • Data entry

  • Human resources

Related: Business Manager: Definition and Types

4. Construction and architecture

This career path prepares students for careers in pre-construction, construction and operations.
They study the principles of designing and drafting structures. While they are not qualified to be architects, graduates can work for architect offices or construction companies. They can work outdoors and build structures or sit indoors and design them.

Career paths include:

  • Construction

  • Design/pre-construction

  • Maintenance/operation

Popular careers

Popular careers within the construction CTE program include:

  • Construction technology

  • Construction inspector

  • Project estimator

Related: 8 Certifications for Construction Workers

5. Education and training

Education and training prepare students for jobs in education services and related learning support with an emphasis on improving the public education system. While CTE isn’t typically enough to become a teacher, it makes a student an ideal candidate for a career in training and recruitment. Graduates could find opportunities in small businesses as well as multinational corporations. Students can also use this training as foundational knowledge to pursue a career in teaching.

Career paths include:

  • Administration and administrative support

  • Professional support services

  • Teaching/training

Popular careers

Popular careers within the education CTE program include:

  • Safety specialist

  • Teaching aide

  • Training consultant

Related: Popular Careers in Education You Can Pursue

6. Finance

Students in this track build a strong foundation in understanding cash, revenue, profit margins and expenditures. It is ideal for someone interested in entering the financial world, whether in an accounting firm or working an organization’s accounts receivable. The track teaches students how to handle large-scale bookkeeping, accounting and more. Depending on the career students aspire to, they may need additional diplomas or certifications, although it isn’t required for all finance positions.

Career paths include:

  • Accounting

  • Banking services

  • Business finance

  • Insurance

  • Securities and investment

Popular careers

Popular careers within the finance CTE program include:

  • Accountant

  • Accounts receivable

  • Controller

Related: Your Guide To Careers in Finance

7. Government and public administration

This career cluster focuses on planning and performing government functions at the local, state and federal levels. Typically, students learn about local governments, including taxes, parks, budgeting and counsels. Students who aspire to work in local government will need to participate in politics. While this track will not teach students to market themselves for those endeavors, it will launch them into government work in general.

Career paths include:

  • Foreign service

  • Governance

  • National security

  • Planning

  • Public management and administration

  • Regulation

  • Revenue and taxation

Popular careers

Popular careers within the government CTE program include:

  • Administrative assistant

  • Project manager

  • Zoning specialist

Related: Working in Government: Pros and Conss

8. Health science

Health science is one of the most popular CTE career tracks and focuses on planning, managing and providing therapeutic services and more. Students can prepare for a wide variety of jobs in the health and wellness field, such as nurses and patient care technicians.

Career paths include:

  • Biotechnology research and development

  • Diagnostic services

  • Health informatics

  • Support services

  • Therapeutic services

Some certifications they may earn through CTE include:

  • Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA)

  • Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

  • Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA)

  • Phlebotomy Technician (CPT)

Popular careers

Popular careers within the health science CTE program include:

  • Certified medical assistant

  • Nursing

  • Patient care technician

Related: 10 Jobs in Health Science

9. Hospitality and tourism

Students get hands-on experience with hospitality management, including the business and industry principles that accompany it. The CTE program teaches them to manage businesses like hotels, motels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts and tourist attractions.

Career paths include:

  • Lodging

  • Recreation, amusements and attractions

  • Restaurant and food/beverage services

  • Travel and tourism

Popular careers

Popular careers within the hospitality CTE program include:

  • Assistant hotel director

  • Guest experience specialist

  • Reception manager

Related: What Is Hospitality Management?

10. Human services

Human services CTE includes social work, social services and drug rehabilitation. It differs from the health science track as students in human services generally have a passion for helping people emotionally.

Career paths include:

  • Consumer services

  • Counseling and mental health services

  • Early childhood development and services

  • Family and community services

  • Personal care services

Popular careers

Popular careers within the human services CTE program include:

  • Rehabilitation

  • Social service assistant

  • Social worker

Related: 10 Careers in the Human Services Field

11. Information technology (IT)

Within this track, students study the design, development, implementation, support and management of information systems. They learn everything they need to bring companies online from network setup to equipment maintenance. The combination of CTE and on-the-job training can rapidly take IT graduates from entry-level work to a chief information officer role.

Career paths include:

  • Information support and services

  • Interactive media

  • Network systems

  • Programming and software development

Popular careers

Popular careers within the human services CTE program include:

  • Information technology solutions

  • Network specialist

  • Site reliability engineer

Related: Information Technology Skills in Demand Today

12. Law, public safety and security

The law CTE track focuses on emergency services and all legal-based occupations. This is a great track for students who want to branch into criminal justice, particularly law enforcement. CTE gives students the chance to work in other capacities of legal occupations as well, including clerical work. It’s a great starting place for those who want to become more involved in law, whether they choose to pursue further education.

Career paths include:

  • Correction services

  • Emergency and fire management services

  • Law enforcement services

  • Legal services

  • Security and protective services

Popular careers

Popular careers within the law CTE program include:

  • Criminal justice

  • Law enforcement

  • Paralegal

Related: Differences Between Law Enforcement Jobs

13. Logistics, distribution and transportation

This career cluster focuses on moving and tracking inventory from one point to another. The track prepares students for careers in planning, managing and moving people, materials and goods by air, rail, water, pipeline and roads. Logistics, distribution and transportation also include jobs in transportation infrastructure, planning and management, facility maintenance, logistics services and mobile equipment.

Students who specialize in logistics have career opportunities in almost every area of the U.S., as any computer that needs to track inventory will always need transportation, distribution and logistics specialists. They get hands-on experience with tracking systems, scheduling practices and identification technologies. Students may learn radio frequency identification (RFID) practices and back-end management systems.

Career paths include:

  • Facility and mobile equipment maintenance

  • Health, safety and environmental management

  • Logistics planning and management services

  • Sales and service

  • Transportation operations

  • Transportation systems/infrastructure planning, management and regulation

  • Warehousing and distribution center operations

Popular careers

Popular careers within the logistics CTE program include:

  • Distribution manager

  • Logistics planner

  • Transportations analyst

Related: 10 Careers in Transportation To Explore

14. Manufacturing

The manufacturing track covers all of the processes, materials and protocols commonly involved with mass production. Students are prepared for careers that require them to plan, manage and perform the processing of materials into intermediate or final products.

Career paths include:

  • Health, safety and environmental assurance

  • Logistics and inventory control

  • Maintenance, installation and repair

  • Manufacturing production process development

  • Production

  • Quality assurance

Popular careers

Popular careers within the logistics CTE program include:

  • Materials acquisition

  • Materials manager

  • Production specialist

Related: Manufacturing Jobs: Definition and Examples

15. Marketing, sales and service

The marketing, sales and service program focuses on concepts of customer acquisition and retention. This CTE track prepares students for the basics in marketing, sales and customer service and helps them combine their skills to create a positive and successful experience for customers.

Career paths include:

  • Marketing communications

  • Marketing management

  • Marketing research

  • Merchandising

  • Professional sales

Popular careers

Popular careers within the marketing CTE program include:

  • Data analyst

  • Marketing specialist

  • Sales representative

Related: What Is a Marketing Checklist?

16. Sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)

This cluster prepares students for careers as technologists and engineers by introducing processes in technology, science and math. STEM-related careers are among the most popular occupational topics in the U.S., ranging from shop class to vehicle design.

Because of the high demand for employees in STEM-related careers, CTE STEM graduates have opportunities to earn high salaries with low competition. They can go into machinery, computer applications or even engineering, especially if they pursue an advanced degree in addition to their CTE coursework.

Career paths include:

  • Engineering and technology

  • Science and mathematics

Popular careers

Popular careers within the STEM CTE program include:

  • CAD specialist

  • Engineering technologies

  • Mechanic

Related: 50 Careers in STEM

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