Career and Technical Education- How to Find Your Path

In this article:

  • What Is Career and Technical Education?
  • How CTE Relates to Career Clusters and Career Pathways
  • How to Choose a CTE Path Based on Your Personality

Career and technical education (CTE) gives millions of people a more practical and streamlined way to prepare for the workforce. In fact, during 2013 alone, more than 2.6 million CTE-related credentials were awarded at the post-secondary level in the U.S.1 Every day, adults just like you are able to begin satisfying and reliable careers thanks to the training and qualifications that they receive through CTE programs.

That's because, after completing some career and technical education, jobs often become easier to get. Many employers simply prefer to hire people who have learned work-relevant skills through CTE classes rather than those who have only studied academic subjects. And a lot of CTE-oriented schools specialize in offering training for occupations that are experiencing strong demand in the labor market.

The key point to remember is this: You may not need to get a strictly academic education at a traditional college or university in order to succeed. Several other paths are available, especially if you are serious about getting into the workforce quickly and starting a career that offers the opportunity for stability and good pay. By attending a school of career and technical education, you may even get to attend classes fully or partially online, during the evening, or on weekends.

What Is Career and Technical Education?

The most common career and technical education (CTE) definition goes something like this: CTE is an educational option designed to help students develop marketable and work-ready skills that lead directly to employment or that provide the foundation for more advanced occupational training. When it comes to post-secondary education, CTE often consists of stand-alone programs that focus on practical training for specific occupations. In some cases, general academic courses are included alongside CTE courses. Other terms for career and technical education include:

  • Career technical education
  • Career-technical education
  • Career/technical education
  • Career and technology education
  • Vocational education
  • Trades training

CTE programs are offered at many types of educational institutions. For example, you can find them at trade schools, vocational schools, career and technical colleges, community colleges, and even many private and public universities. In addition, some labor unions, professional associations, and public workforce-development agencies offer CTE courses.

So career and technical education is often a great option for adult students who are exploring ways to earn job credentials beyond the high school level. (A traditional four-year bachelor's degree is definitely not your only option.) In fact, it's possible to find a convenient CTE course of study that takes less than a year to complete. And many career-oriented schools offer accelerated programs that can allow you to earn an associate's degree in less than two years or a bachelor's degree in less than four years. In 2013, the proportion of CTE credentials that were awarded in America looked like this:1

  • Bachelor's degrees—43 percent
  • Associate's degrees—22.4 percent
  • Certificates of less than one year—16.7 percent
  • Certificates of between one and two years—16.4 percent
  • Certificates of between two and four years—1.5 percent

CTE has also become a major area of focus for a lot of high schools throughout the country. As a matter of fact, most public school students in America have completed at least one career and technical high school class before graduating and either entering the workforce or moving on to the post-secondary level.2 So you might have already taken some CTE courses, even if you didn't realize it at the time.

How CTE Relates to Career Clusters and Career Pathways

Career clusters are basically just categories of occupations that require the same types of skills and personality traits. The term career pathways usually refers to the training or educational options for particular occupations within specific career clusters. Career and technical education is designed to provide clear and reliable pathways for entry into those occupations.

So, for example, health sciences (i.e., health care) is a career cluster. And within health sciences, a student might choose to become a registered nurse. The most common and direct career pathway is to complete a two- or four-year CTE program in registered nursing.

Currently, many CTE providers and public institutions recognize the following career clusters:3

  • Health sciences
  • Human services
  • Business administration and management
  • Marketing, sales, and service
  • Finance
  • Arts, communications, and audio-visual (AV) technology
  • Information technology
  • Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)
  • Architecture and construction
  • Manufacturing
  • Transportation , distribution, and logistics
  • Food, agriculture, and natural resources
  • Tourism and hospitality
  • Law, security, and public safety
  • Government and public administration
  • Education and training

How to Choose a CTE Path Based on Your Personality

Everyone is different. However, we each have basic motivations and personality traits that at least some other people share. As a result, it is often possible to narrow down your career possibilities by exploring your most dominant personality traits. That's why, before choosing a CTE program, many students take an online personality test, such as one that is derived from the Holland Codes.

The Holland Codes are based on the work of an American psychologist who determined that people's occupations are often expressions of their personalities. According to this line of thinking, most people are a combination of two or more personality types, which include:

  • Realistic—People with this personality are considered doers. They often value independence and prefer tasks that are mechanical or physical in nature. As a result, they frequently like to work with their hands, use tools, or spend time outdoors or around animals. They also tend to be practical and down-to-earth.
  • Investigative—This personality type is associated with thinkers and curious people who are good at observing, conducting research, and solving problems. They are often drawn to roles that allow them to use science, math, or technology.
  • Artistic—Expressive and creative people are the main representatives of this personality type. They tend to value innovation, abstract concepts, and original ideas. So they are frequently attracted to roles that involve the arts, require imagination and open-mindedness, or allow them to be creators.
  • Social—People who have this kind of personality are natural helpers. They care about other people and are driven to cooperate and build relationships. Their kindness and compassion often leads them toward serving their communities in some way.
  • Enterprising—This type of personality tends to be associated with people who are good at taking charge and persuading others. Such people often have a lot of energy, ambition, and optimism. And they frequently thrive on taking risks, being leaders, and taking on the competition.
  • Conventional—Organization and routine are usually very important to people with this kind of personality. They often take pride in minding the details, following plans, and keeping things running efficiently. As a result, they tend to gravitate toward roles and work environments that are well structured and come with clear rules and expectations.

After reading those descriptions, you may have a fairly good sense of your own personality type. But, of course, understanding that aspect of yourself is only the beginning. In order to choose a suitable path, you also need a sense of how the above personality types match up to various career clusters.

Explore the popular career areas below and think about whether or not your own personality might be a fit for them. Each category includes examples of occupations that you can prepare for by getting a career and technical education.

(The salary data is from May 2015, and the job-opening projections are for the decade between 2014 and 2024.4)

  • Health Care
  • Skilled Trades
  • Consumer Services
  • Business
  • Information Technology (IT)
  • Architecture & Engineering
  • Design, Arts & Communication
  • Legal & Social Services
  • Education

Health Care

Students earn more post-secondary certificates and associate's degrees in health care than in any other career cluster. No other category even comes close.1 That's probably because many health care jobs pay great salaries and the demand for qualified health and medical workers continues to rise as America's population of senior citizens increases. Plus, many of the most enjoyable jobs in this sector only require two years or less of CTE education.

Most common personality types:

  • Social
  • Investigative
  • Realistic
  • Conventional

Occupation examples:

  • Dental hygienist
    • Median annual pay—$72,330
    • Total projected job openings—70,300
    • Typical education—Associate's degree
  • Diagnostic medical sonographer
    • Median annual pay—$68,970
    • Total projected job openings—27,500
    • Typical education—Associate's degree
  • Registered nurse
    • Median annual pay—$67,490
    • Total projected job openings—1,088,400
    • Typical education—Associate's or bachelor's degree
  • Radiologic technologist
    • Median annual pay—$56,670
    • Total projected job openings—54,400
    • Typical education—Associate's degree
  • Physical therapist assistant
    • Median annual pay—$55,170
    • Total projected job openings—54,700
    • Typical education—Associate's degree
  • Cardiovascular technologist
    • Median annual pay—$54,880
    • Total projected job openings—21,400
    • Typical education—Associate's degree
  • Surgical technologist
    • Median annual pay—$44,330
    • Total projected job openings—24,600
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Licensed practical or vocational nurse (LPN or LVN)
    • Median annual pay—$43,170
    • Total projected job openings—322,200
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Medical laboratory technician
    • Median annual pay—$38,970
    • Total projected job openings—68,100
    • Typical education—Associate's degree
  • Massage therapist
    • Median annual pay—$38,040
    • Total projected job openings—49,000
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Dental assistant
    • Median annual pay—$35,980
    • Total projected job openings—137,500
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Phlebotomist
    • Median annual pay—$31,630
    • Total projected job openings—51,600
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Medical assistant
    • Median annual pay—$30,590
    • Total projected job openings—262,100
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate

Skilled Trades

A lot of people need to feel like they are doing something tangible each day. They want to work with physical objects instead of ideas or digital bits that they can't touch. That's just one reason why the skilled trades are among some of the most popular options for people who are pursuing career and technical education. These occupations require precision and a no-nonsense approach to solving practical problems. And skilled tradespeople are often in high demand, especially in regions where the economy is growing.

Most common personality types:

  • Realistic
  • Conventional

Occupation examples:

  • Aircraft mechanic
    • Median annual pay—$58,370
    • Total projected job openings—30,100
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Electrician
    • Median annual pay—$51,880
    • Total projected job openings—181,800
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate + apprenticeship
  • Wind energy technician
    • Median annual pay—$51,050
    • Total projected job openings—5,500
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Plumber
    • Median annual pay—$50,620
    • Total projected job openings—105,200
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate + apprenticeship
  • Commercial diver
    • Median annual pay—$50,470
    • Total projected job openings—2,300
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Heavy equipment mechanic
    • Median annual pay—$48,770
    • Total projected job openings—36,000
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • HVAC technician
    • Median annual pay—$45,110
    • Total projected job openings—84,200
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate + apprenticeship
  • Diesel mechanic
    • Median annual pay—$42,520
    • Total projected job openings—76,900
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Carpenter
    • Median annual pay—$42,090
    • Total projected job openings—169,100
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate + apprenticeship
  • Commercial truck driver
    • Median annual pay—$40,260
    • Total projected job openings—404,500
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Locksmith
    • Median annual pay—$39,160
    • Total projected job openings—10,700
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Marine mechanic
    • Median annual pay—$38,280
    • Total projected job openings—5,100
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Welder
    • Median annual pay—$38,150
    • Total projected job openings—128,500
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Auto mechanic
    • Median annual pay—$37,850
    • Total projected job openings—237,200
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Solar energy technician
    • Median annual pay—$37,830
    • Total projected job openings—2,300
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Motorcycle mechanic
    • Median annual pay—$34,220
    • Total projected job openings—4,400
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate

Consumer Services

The beauty, culinary, and hospitality and tourism industries are full of great occupations that require special skills and talents. And what are CTE classes for if not to develop those kinds of abilities in a controlled and supportive environment? Many vocational schools offer fast and fun programs in this sector that lead to appealing career opportunities.

Most common personality types:

  • Realistic
  • Artistic
  • Enterprising
  • Social

Occupation examples:

  • Hotel manager
    • Median annual pay—$49,720
    • Total projected job openings—13,000
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate or higher
  • Restaurant or food service manager
    • Median annual pay—$48,690
    • Total projected job openings—77,100
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate or higher
  • Chef or head cook
    • Median annual pay—$41,500
    • Total projected job openings—30,400
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate or higher
  • Travel agent
    • Median annual pay—$35,660
    • Total projected job openings—11,500
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate or higher
  • Skincare specialist (esthetician)
    • Median annual pay—$30,090
    • Total projected job openings—10,900
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Cosmetologist
    • Median annual pay—$23,660
    • Total projected job openings—212,100
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Nail technician
    • Median annual pay—$20,820
    • Total projected job openings—20,600
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate

Business, Finance, and Marketing

This category may not immediately come to mind when you think about what CTE means. After all, for many people, the typical career and technical education definition first calls to mind thoughts of the skilled trades and other occupations like those already listed. However, business-related occupations definitely require their own special sets of skills. And they remain very popular for career-driven students who want clear pathways to good careers.

Most common personality types:

  • Enterprising
  • Conventional
  • Social
  • Artistic

Occupation examples:

  • Personal financial advisor
    • Median annual pay—$89,160
    • Total projected job openings—136,400
    • Typical education—Bachelor's degree
  • Marketing specialist
    • Median annual pay—$62,150
    • Total projected job openings—151,400
    • Typical education—Bachelor's degree
  • Human resources specialist
    • Median annual pay—$58,350
    • Total projected job openings—139,300
    • Typical education—Associate's or bachelor's degree
  • Public relations specialist
    • Median annual pay—$56,770
    • Total projected job openings—43,600
    • Typical education—Bachelor's degree
  • Property manager
    • Median annual pay—$55,380
    • Total projected job openings—79,900
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate or higher
  • Event planner
    • Median annual pay—$46,840
    • Total projected job openings—21,800
    • Typical education—Associate's or bachelor's degree
  • Accounting or bookkeeping clerk
    • Median annual pay—$37,250
    • Total projected job openings—172,600
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate or higher
  • Administrative assistant
    • Median annual pay—$33,910
    • Total projected job openings—323,100
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate or higher

Information Technology (IT)

Computers (and the data they store and share) represent vital aspects of our modern world. As they get more powerful, they increasingly influence more and more areas of our lives. That's why, for anyone working in IT, the future is now—and this broad field gets more exciting every day. With an IT-focused technical education, you can begin taking advantage of the many cool opportunities.

Most common personality types:

  • Investigative
  • Realistic

Occupation examples:

  • Software applications developer
    • Median annual pay—$98,260
    • Total projected job openings—238,000
    • Typical education—Bachelor's degree
  • Information security analyst
    • Median annual pay—$90,120
    • Total projected job openings—25,500
    • Typical education—Bachelor's degree
  • Database administrator
    • Median annual pay—$81,710
    • Total projected job openings—39,200
    • Typical education—Bachelor's degree
  • Computer programmer
    • Median annual pay—$79,530
    • Total projected job openings—81,000
    • Typical education—Associate's or bachelor's degree
  • Network administrator
    • Median annual pay—$77,810
    • Total projected job openings—79,400
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate or higher
  • Computer support technician
    • Median annual pay—$48,620
    • Total projected job openings—150,500
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate

Architectural and Engineering Technologies

This career category attracts many of the same kinds of people as information technology. And these occupations are just as important and exciting. After all, they often involve working on the plans and designs for cool or technologically advanced real-world objects like buildings, cars, robots, or electronic gadgets. In some jobs, you even get to work with your hands while testing various details and helping engineers refine their designs.

Most common personality types:

  • Investigative
  • Realistic
  • Conventional

Occupation examples:

  • Electronics engineering technician
    • Median annual pay—$61,130
    • Total projected job openings—34,100
    • Typical education—Associate's degree
  • Mechanical engineering technician
    • Median annual pay—$53,910
    • Total projected job openings—12,800
    • Typical education—Associate's degree
  • Civil or architectural drafter
    • Median annual pay—$50,710
    • Total projected job openings—11,100
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate or higher
  • Environmental engineering technician
    • Median annual pay—$48,650
    • Total projected job openings—6,400
    • Typical education—Associate's degree

Design, Arts, and Communication

Being a naturally creative person can be a true gift since many terrific career options exist in this category. In fact, some of the most fun and enjoyable CTE pathways are related to art, design, multimedia, and communications. Plus, these fields are always evolving. As new technologies and social trends gain traction, fresh opportunities are created to make an impact and a great living.

Most common personality types:

  • Artistic
  • Social
  • Enterprising
  • Realistic

Occupation examples:

  • Web designer or developer
    • Median annual pay—$64,970
    • Total projected job openings—58,600
    • Typical education—Associate's or bachelor's degree
  • Animator or special effects artist
    • Median annual pay—$63,970
    • Total projected job openings—15,900
    • Typical education—Associate's or bachelor's degree
  • Fashion designer
    • Median annual pay—$63,670
    • Total projected job openings—6,200
    • Typical education—Associate's or bachelor's degree
  • Film or video editor
    • Median annual pay—$61,750
    • Total projected job openings—8,900
    • Typical education—Associate's or bachelor's degree
  • Sound engineering technician
    • Median annual pay—$53,330
    • Total projected job openings—4,300
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Interior designer
    • Median annual pay—$48,840
    • Total projected job openings—16,200
    • Typical education—Associate's or bachelor's degree
  • Graphic designer
    • Median annual pay—$46,900
    • Total projected job openings—65,800
    • Typical education—Associate's or bachelor's degree
  • Broadcasting technician
    • Median annual pay—$37,490
    • Total projected job openings—5,700
    • Typical education—Associate's degree
  • Photographer
    • Median annual pay—$31,710
    • Total projected job openings—34,500
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate or higher
  • Floral designer
    • Median annual pay—$25,010
    • Total projected job openings—14,000
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate

Legal, Protective, and Social Services

This broad career category often provides good opportunities for people with almost any personality type. These occupations are essential for keeping our communities safe and ensuring that everyone has access to a helping hand and fair criminal justice system. As a result, they are often both challenging and fulfilling. And they can frequently be pursued with less education than you may think.

Most common personality types:

  • Social
  • Investigative
  • Realistic
  • Enterprising
  • Artistic

Occupation examples:

  • Police officer
    • Median annual pay—$58,320
    • Total projected job openings—258,400
    • Typical education—Associate's or bachelor's degree + police academy training
  • Paralegal or legal assistant
    • Median annual pay—$48,810
    • Total projected job openings—82,700
    • Typical education—Associate's degree
  • Private investigator
    • Median annual pay—$45,610
    • Total projected job openings—11,000
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Child, family, or school social worker
    • Median annual pay—$42,350
    • Total projected job openings—92,500
    • Typical education—Bachelor's degree
  • Mental health or substance abuse social worker
    • Median annual pay—$42,170
    • Total projected job openings—50,700
    • Typical education—Bachelor's degree
  • Mental health counselor
    • Median annual pay—$41,880
    • Total projected job openings—54,500
    • Typical education—Bachelor's or master's degree
  • Correctional officer
    • Median annual pay—$40,530
    • Total projected job openings—143,000
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate or higher
  • Security guard
    • Median annual pay—$24,630
    • Total projected job openings—209,600
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate or higher


Our collective future depends on the proper education of younger generations. That's why some CTE programs focus on developing the abilities of people who want to help motivate, inspire, and educate children. The lengths of such programs tend to vary, ranging from less than a year to up to four years or more. So you have the opportunity to choose a path that matches your own ambition for making a difference in the lives of kids and students.

Most common personality types:

  • Social
  • Artistic

Occupation examples:

  • High school teacher
    • Median annual pay—$57,200
    • Total projected job openings—284,000
    • Typical education—Bachelor's degree
  • Elementary school teacher
    • Median annual pay—$54,890
    • Total projected job openings—378,700
    • Typical education—Bachelor's degree
  • Childcare center director
    • Median annual pay—$45,670
    • Total projected job openings—22,900
    • Typical education—Bachelor's degree
  • Library technician
    • Median annual pay—$32,310
    • Total projected job openings—53,900
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Teacher assistant
    • Median annual pay—$24,900
    • Total projected job openings—374,500
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate
  • Early childhood educator
    • Median annual pay—$20,320
    • Total projected job openings—441,300
    • Typical education—Vocational certificate

Find Your Own Path Toward Career Satisfaction

Career and technical education programs are available for many other occupations beyond the examples listed above. And you probably don't have to go far in order to find them. In fact, all you really need is your zip code. Use the following search tool to quickly discover online or on-campus CTE programs that serve students in your region!

1 National Center for Education Statistics, Career/Technical Education (CTE) Statistics, website last visited on January 27, 2017.

2 Congressional Research Service, Career and Technical Education (CTE): A Primer, website last visited on December 5, 2016.

3Association for Career & Technical Education, website last visited on September 7, 2016.

4 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Projections, website last visited on January 27, 2017.


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