Michigan’s job market is hot right now. But unless something changes, many Detroit-area high school students won’t be ready for it when they graduate – especially if they don’t go on to earn a bachelor’s degree – which many of them unfortunately won’t.

For as long as anyone can remember, American high schools have mostly failed to provide their students with genuinely marketable skills. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And in recent years, a growing number of “career and technical education” (CTE) programs have sought to bridge the gap between what students learn and what local labor markets demand, typically through a combination of specialized courses and hands-on apprenticeships.

In a new study, we took a closer look at that gap by examining the relationship between the kinds of CTE courses high school students take and the kinds of jobs that will likely be available to them – national and locally – when they finish their education

Nationally, we found that roughly half of the jobs that currently exist are in four big fields: business management and administration (18%), hospitality and tourism (13%), marketing (12%), and manufacturing (9%). Yet only one of these fields — business management and administration — sees significant course-taking in high school. Worse, most students appear to be dabbling — taking electives across various fields instead of “concentrating” in a single one, which prior research suggests can improve their odds of success in college and the workplace.

The picture looks a little different when we examine Detroit specifically. For example, compared to their peers in the rest of the U.S., kids in Detroit take more courses in marketing and business management and administration, but fewer courses in agriculture, food and natural resources. And unsurprisingly, given its history, the Detroit area has an unusual number of students who concentrate in transportation, distribution, and logistics.

Yet, in many other ways, the local picture is not so different from the depressing national picture. For example, of the four big fields that support over half of Detroit-area jobs — marketing; manufacturing; hospitality and tourism; and business management and administration — only one (business management) has a local concentration rate that exceeds 1 percent.

In our view, these results highlight the enormous potential for greater alignment between what Detroit students take in high school and what local employers will be looking for when they graduate — especially in manufacturing, where the most recent data show particularly rapid job growth. Likewise, increasing the number of young people qualified for technology careers — the so-called “new collar” jobs — is going to be a challenge given that only 8.4 percent of Detroit students take at least three CTE courses in information technology.

Simply put, despite the current enthusiasm for career-oriented education, very few Motown youngsters are actually experiencing it in a meaningful way. So it’s critical that the local business and education communities join hands to point more students in the right direction— or at least, a direction — without closing any doors or sacrificing their general education.

Obviously, figuring out exactly what that means for any particular student is a longer conversation. But it’s one we ought to start having sooner.

After all, today’s boom won’t last forever. And regardless of who makes varsity, or gets asked to prom, or is voted “most likely to succeed,” tomorrow will be here before they know it.

Cameron Sublett, associate professor of education at Pepperdine University, and David Griffith, senior research and policy associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, are co-authors of a new report, How Aligned is Career and Technical Education to Local Labor Markets?

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