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Career and Technical Education (CTE) | CTE Career Clusters

What Is Career & Technical Education (CTE)?

February 14th, 2023 | 37 min. read

Brad Hummel

Brad Hummel

Coming from a family of educators, Brad knows both the joys and challenges of teaching well. Through his own teaching background, he’s experienced both firsthand. As a writer for iCEV, Brad’s goal is to help teachers empower their students by listening to educators’ concerns and creating content that answers their most pressing questions about career and technical education.

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Career and Technical Education (CTE) has become increasingly popular across the United States as more people realize how crucial CTE is to the country.

Yet, many people remain unsure of what exactly "career and technical education" is.

As a CTE curriculum developer, we've heard misconceptions, confusion, and many questions about CTE over the past 30 years.

Career and technical education (CTE) is the practice of teaching specific career skills to students in middle school, high school, and post-secondary institutions.

CTE is split into 16 career clusters that apply to different high-demand careers:

  1. Health Science
  2. Business
  3. Sales
  4. Finance
  5. Information Technology
  6. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)
  7. Manufacturing
  8. Logistics
  9. Hospitality
  10. Government
  11. Law
  12. Agriculture
  13. Human Services
  14. Construction
  15. Training
  16. Arts, Audio/Visual Technology, and Communications

On this page, we’ll take an in-depth look at each CTE cluster to understand what’s included and why they’re important.

Infographic: What Is Career & Technical Education?


Now that we've reviewed the 16 CTE career clusters, let's take a closer look at the definition of career and technical education.

The Definition of Career & Technical Education

In this section, we'll explore CTE based on the following definition:

Career and technical education (CTE) is the practice of teaching skills-based careers to students in middle school, high school, and post-secondary institutions.

At iCEV, we believe this is the most accurate definition of CTE because it highlights both the unique qualities and the importance of career and technical education.

Specifically, CTE is focused on developing skills and applicable to nearly every age range.

Let's consider these two aspects of CTE in more depth.

1. CTE is Focused on Developing Skills

First, CTE is focused on developing skills. This differs from traditional and university-based education, which is based on theory.

CTE includes some theory, but that’s typically only seen in introductory materials.

Practice, hands-on experience, and application tests make up the bulk of CTE. This is important because CTE careers require workers to have experience in their field before starting a career.

After all, many CTE pathways take students to careers that can save lives. Health science, government, law, agriculture, and construction especially relate to maintaining the health and safety of others.

For this reason, CTE instructors often focus more on practice and improvement instead of textbook memorization.

2. CTE is Widely Applicable

Second, CTE is applicable to almost every educational age range. This is possible because students can understand fundamentals of any career as early as sixth grade, and they can build essential skills well into adulthood.

For this reason, you’ll find CTE clusters and pathways offered in middle schools, high schools, and post-secondary institutions. After completing a program, students can earn the certifications they need to start their careers, many of which are currently in high demand.

At the same time, CTE clusters don’t limit students to single careers. In fact, many students use these courses as preparation before moving onto community college or university.

The Advantages of CTE

The focus and applicability of CTE results in two advantages that you can’t find in many other education fields:

  1. CTE is highly specialized.
  2. CTE is incredibly versatile.

Typically, these qualities are at opposite ends of the education spectrum. A teaching method is either general and versatile or specific and inflexible.

With CTE, students can develop a specific set of skills that are still applicable to a broad range of real-world contexts, making them employable in a variety of fields. 

Now, let’s delve into the 16 career clusters CTE offers to students.


The 16 Clusters of Career & Technical Education

The 16 CTE career clusters are distinct, specialized areas of expertise in high-demand occupations.

These areas of skill development are rich with expansive career opportunities that allow students to explore what they love. While some clusters are more in-demand than others, each is subject to developments and changes based on new breakthroughs, best practices, and other advancements.

CTE provides an alternative to traditional secondary and postsecondary education, but it's also common for CTE graduates to continue their education at four-year universities and even pursue advanced degrees.

Altogether, this means each CTE career cluster teach students life skills and career skills at the same time, jump-starting their lives and turning them into productive members of their communities.

To get a better picture of the 16 CTE career clusters, let’s take a look at each one individually.

Keep in mind that this is just an overview. Some states like Florida and Texas have their own career clusters, so you'll still want check specific differences in career pathways in your state.

1. Health Science


Popular Careers: Nursing, Patient Care Technician, Certified Medical Assistant

Health science is the largest CTE cluster and one of the most popular today. This cluster includes careers throughout the healthcare industry that deal with the medical care and well-being of patients.

A growing population an increased and consistent demand for health science professionals means that learners in this career cluster have abundant opportunities for engaging careers in a variety of pathways. Today's CTE graduates pursue careers as nurses, patient care technicians, medical assistants, and more.

Although students can advance in healthcare by earning a university credential, students can start many health science jobs immediately after high school when they've earned the appropriate certifications.

Certifications CTE students can take to be employment-ready after high school include:

Many of these certifications are administered by the National Healthcareer Association (NHA), which has become one of a handful of distinguished healthcare certifiers. But regardless of the pathway, a certification will help students be prepared for work in specialty of their choosing.

2. Business, Management, & Administration


Popular Careers: Human Resources, Data Entry, Business Management

Business education courses are among the most common in CTE because of their versatility. A background in business prepares CTE students to work in almost every career path or industry, especially management.

While some students will still go on to study business at college or graduate school, CTE business education provides the foundational knowledge students need to work successfully in a corporate setting—or even start a business of their own.

Business management and administration is also an area where CTE students can earn certifications to prove their knowledge.

Some examples of popular certifications include:

  1. Express Employment Professionals Business Office Technology Certification
  2. IC3 Certification
  3. Microsoft Office Specialist

Irrespective of which industry graduates choose to work in, CTE graduates have the opportunity to make an impact in business immediately after completing their programs.

3. Marketing, Sales, and Service


Popular Careers: Marketing Specialist, Sales Representative, Data Analyst

Marketing, sales, and service are all based on the concepts of customer acquisition and customer retention.

Careers in this cluster deal with different parts of the customer experience, but they’re all essential in keeping a company viable:

  • Marketing represents the first step in the customer experience and involves developing curious parties into sales leads.
  • Sales presents products to leads and develops them into paying customers.
  • Customer Service makes sure that customers are satisfied and remain committed to a company for the long term.

Students in this CTE cluster cultivate skills that will help them work in all three of these business areas. They also learn how to work cross-functionally to ensure these departments are aligned to create a seamless customer experience.

To help prepare them for work in a business environment, students in this cluster can earn an industry credential like the Express Employment Professionals Career Preparedness Certification.

4. Finance


Popular Careers: Accountant, Controller, Accounts Receivable

The finance CTE cluster teaches students how to handle small- and large-scale bookkeeping, accounting, banking, and investments.

Learners in this cluster gain a strong foundation in understanding cash, revenue, expenditures, profit margins, and other principles of money management. Although most careers in finance require a college degree, understanding these fundamentals helps prepare students for careers in finance and accounting.

Because finance is a highly-competitive field, advanced degrees help students stand out among their peers. However, CTE finance graduates already have experience to begin working in financial occupations, particularly through earning industry certifications.

Regardless of which pathway they choose, students in the finance cluster develop a substantial background in effective money management.

5. Information Technology (IT)


Popular Careers: Site Reliability Engineer, Information Technology Solutions, Network Specialist

Information technology (IT) is the application of digital networking, information transfer, server reliability, and other 21st Century essentials.  

Starting with Principles of Information Technology, CTE students who choose an IT pathway will learn everything they need to bring whole companies online in terms of local servers, equipment maintenance, and networking setup.

Plus, IT graduates walk straight into one of the most lucrative and high-demand job markets in the world. Once students have their IT certifications, they can start careers anywhere from local businesses to international technology corporations.

With the help of a quality information technology curriculum, students will be prepared for a a career cluster where rapid development and change require a unique set of skills and experience.

IT will continue to remain a high-demand career, and the combination of CTE and on-the-job training will keep graduates on a path to long-term achievement in the industry.

6. Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics (STEM)


Popular Careers: Mechanic, CAD Specialist, Engineering Technologies

The science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) career cluster covers interrelated subjects leading to many scientific and technical careers.

Occupations involving engineering, design, and computer-based machinery often require a background in STEM. This has made STEM one of the most popular career clusters today, with many job opportunities available after completing a CTE program.

Graduates in STEM also have a high earning potential, especially if they pursue a baccalaureate or advanced degree in a field like engineering. However, there are also many opportunities in this career cluster that require no additional education or experience beyond a secondary-level CTE program.

One way CTE STEM graduates can make themselves stand out is by taking classes in Scientific Research and Design or Engineering Science while still in high school.

Taking these courses early will give learners the background they need to start their careers right after finishing high school.

7. Manufacturing


Popular Careers: Production Specialist, Materials Manager, Materials Acquisition

Manufacturing in CTE covers all of the processes, materials, and protocols that are commonly found in mass production.

Manufacturing has remained a major career cluster in CTE because the processes and products of manufacturing drive industries throughout the global economy. Students who learn the principles of manufacturing develop a fundamental set of skills they can use in any industry.

While much of today's large-scale manufacturing takes place overseas, many companies maintaining manufacturing facilities throughout the United States and seek CTE graduates with specialized experience.

Today, welding is a particular popular manufacturing career that is consistently in demand throughout the United States.

Because of their specific knowledge of welding practices and techniques, learners who choose this pathway develop skills that are transferrable to many different professional contexts throughout multiple manufacturing industries.

But regardless of their pathway, students within the manufacturing cluster still have plenty of opportunities for careers as successful CTE graduates.

8. Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics


Popular Careers: Automotive Careers, Logistics Planner, Distribution Manager, Transportations Analyst

Transportation, distribution, and logistics deal with moving and tracking goods and materials and the vehicles used to make transit possible.

Professionals in this detail-oriented pathway often have a keen eye for organization, as well as specialized knowledge in a particular area.

Trucking, shipping, and storage all fall under the umbrella of this CTE specialty. As a result, any company that needs to track inventory will always need transportation, distribution, and logistics specialists.

The transportation career cluster also includes careers related to Automotive, Diesel, and Small Engines.

CTE students who study automotive go on to careers as mechanics and technicians who understand the mechanical and performance systems of household vehicles and light and heavy-duty trucks.

Because transportation careers require a high degree of specialized knowledge, many graduates find that an industry credential like the EETC Principles of Small Engine Technology certification helps them achieve their goals.

CTE students in transportation, distribution, and logistics develop skills that are difficult to find in today's job market. Fortunately, that means these graduates have plenty of career opportunities in almost every area of the United States.

9. Hospitality and Tourism


Popular Careers: Assistant Hotel Director, Guest Experience Specialist, Reception Manager

Hospitality and tourism shows CTE students how to manage businesses like hotels, conference centers, restaurants, and tourist attractions.

Although there are obvious opportunities for hospitality students in regions that draw a large number of tourists, this CTE cluster covers a comprehensive set of hospitality skills students can use to work anywhere in the country.

Graduates in the hospitality and tourism cluster often have experience in Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS), taking courses in areas like hospitality services and culinary arts.

They can also earn industry certification in areas like professional communication.

Pursuing careers in hospitality and tourism is especially valuable for students who want the versatility to work in a variety of locations or on nontraditional schedules. But regardless of where and when they work, CTE graduates in hospitality and tourism will have consistent career opportunities.

10. Government & Public Administration


Popular Careers: Administrative Assistant, Project Manager, Zoning Specialist

Government and public administration covers the organization of governments and their agencies, how citizens interact with governments, and how governments maintain order.

Typically, that means CTE students learn about issues related to local governments, such as taxes, parks and recreation, budgeting, and city councils. Local governments and their agencies are directly involved in the day to day lives of citizens, so it's critical that graduates in this cluster have a background in managing the many unique challenges of managing municipalities.

While government careers can be lucrative, it's important to remember that even at the local level many public careers involve elected positions. Graduates in this CTE career cluster will often have to participate in politics in order to be successful.

For students in this cluster, a background in professional communications and public speaking can be helpful.

However, regardless of their career aspirations, experience in the government and public administration cluster can give students a unique set of skills they can use to navigate public systems and effectively complete projects affecting organizations and everyday citizens.

11. Law, Public Safety, and Security


Popular Careers: Criminal Justice, Paralegal, Law Enforcement

Law, public safety, & security focuses on emergency services and all legal-based occupations.

This CTE cluster is well-known both for its profitability and ability to consistently provide opportunities to graduates. On top of that, this career path is a great start for students who want to branch into criminal justice, particularly law enforcement.

While many occupations within the cluster require a baccalaureate degree or further education, a high school background in CTE is more than sufficient to start working in law, public safety, and security, including clerical work.

It also gives students the knowledge and skills they'll need to work as paralegals or legal bookkeepers, as well as a head start on more advanced career opportunities. 

This cluster is an excellent starting place for anyone looking to get more involved in law, and it pays well enough to keep additional education on the table. But even without further coursework, graduates still have lots of options at their fingertips in law, public safety, and security pathways.

12. Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources


Popular Careers: Agricultural Inspector, Agronomist, Wildlife Administrator

Agriculture, food, and natural resources (AFNR) teaches CTE students about how human life is sustained around the world through consumable resources.

This allows graduates to pursue a wide range of careers within the eight different AFNR career pathways. While becoming a farmer is might be the most obvious career agricultural science, graduates also work as horticulturalists, lab technicians, administrators, and researchers among many other occupations.

Successful students in AFNR clusters often pursue industry certifications, which earn them a credential from a leading agricultural organization or company.

AFNR industry certifications hosted on the iCEV Testing Platform include:

  • ASMA Food Safety and Science Certification
  • ASMA Meat Evaluation Certification
  • BASF Plant Science Certification
  • Benz School of Floral Design Principles of Floral Design Certification
  • Ducks Unlimited Ecology Conservation and Management Certification
  • Elanco Fundamentals of Animal Science Certification
  • Elanco Veterinary Medical Applications Certification
  • NCLCA Principles of Livestock Selection and Evaluation Certification
  • NHJTCA Equine Management and Evaluation Certification

The number of organizations offering certifications is an example of the varied paths students can choose within the AFNR cluster. This makes this cluster a great choice for any CTE student looking for work that has broad applications and has a direct impact on the lives of people throughout the world.

13. Human Services


Popular Careers: Social Worker, Rehabilitation, Social Service Assistant

Human services refers to careers that focus on the needs of individual people.

Typically, these needs revolve around some element that’s lacking in a person’s life. Social work, social services, and drug rehabilitation all fall under this umbrella. In some states, this CTE background may also apply to special education. 

This CTE cluster also includes personal services such as cosmetology and barbering.

Students often follow pathway when they have a passion to help people through providing personal services.

While human services careers frequently pay less than those in other CTE clusters, human services offers rewarding career opportunities that directly affect the lives of individuals and communities. These jobs also continue to be in high demand as a growing population seeks a variety of services.

Ultimately, individuals with a desire to assist others will feel very much at home in human services pathways and careers.

14. Architecture and Construction


Popular Careers: Construction Technology, Construction Inspector, Project Estimator

Architecture & construction CTE students study the principles of designing and crafting structures.

While graduates from this cluster aren’t immediately qualified to become an architect, they are qualified to work at an architect office or construction company.

Students focusing on architecture can be involved in the process of designing buildings and other structures, and may consider postsecondary instruction leading to a degree in architecture. On the other hand, students who study construction can become actively involved in the building process soon after graduating.

With experience in this CTE cluster, students will be prepared for these two sides of construction industry. However, they can also work in a completely different capacity such as an inspector, project estimator, construction technologist.

Learners can also earn industry certifications related to architecture and construction such as:

Regardless of what careers they choose, the continual demand for new construction and refurbishment projects throughout the United States means that there will be plenty of opportunities for CTE graduates in the coming years.

15. Education and Training


Popular Careers: Training Consultant, Teaching Aide, Safety Specialist

Concentrating in education and training turns CTE students into experts in the learning process, empowering them with the skills they need to teach others patiently and effectively.

While completing a CTE program in education and training isn’t enough to become a teacher in most states, a CTE background in education still makes someone a prime candidate for careers in training and recruitment.

Careers in this pathway can include anything from on-the-job training to consulting. A student in this career cluster can find just as much opportunity in a small business as a multinational corporation — wherever workplace standards are in place.

As a result, students in this field can take the knowledge they've learned virtually anywhere there is a need for teaching and training and have transferrable skills. By learning training and educational principles, they can become excellent teachers — even if they’re teaching new hires at a company.  

16. Arts, Audio-Visual Technology, and Communications


Popular Careers: A/V Technician, Audio Engineer, Lighting Technician

The Arts, Audio-Visual Technology, and Communications cluster focuses on the technology that helps create today’s entertainment and artistic expression.

While this could mean drawing, painting, or composing for some students, this CTE cluster is more concerned with operating the technology that makes those products possible. That’s why so many of these students go on to audio engineering, lighting technology, and similar careers.  

Skills in these pathways prepare students to apply their knowledge in a variety of settings, from large concert halls and stadiums to smaller venues and nonprofit entities.

As technology evolves, these skills remain in demand to ensure that technical aspects of concerts, sports, and other events run smoothly. With this background, students are always ready to answer the call.

Now that you've learned about all 16 CTE career clusters, let’s discover the settings where CTE is taught.

Where Is CTE Taught?


CTE is primarily taught in three settings: middle school, high school, and post-secondary institutions. Regardless of the setting, CTE focuses on hands-on experience and career skills.

There is often a great degree of variation in the clusters and pathways an individual CTE program offers. Because of the resources required in starting and maintaining a program, it can be difficult to find a school that offers all 16 career clusters.

For this reason, it's common for post-secondary institutions, high schools, and middle schools to offer courses in high-demand industries such as health science or agriculture.

It's also popular for CTE programs to offer clusters and pathways with versatile opportunities for students, such as business education or STEM. This ensures graduates have skills they can apply to almost any industry in any geographic region.

In addition, what programs a school offers can also vary by location. Rural institutions are usually more likely to offer agriculture than urban districts, and the availability of specific industry training such as welding could vary based on local demand for trained professionals.

Fortunately, there are enough schools in the United States offering CTE that it should be easy for most students to find a school that fits their career interests.

Below, we'll look further at the differences between how CTE is taught in middle school, high school, and post-secondary institutions.

CTE in Middle Schools


CTE in middle school is taught as an elective.

Students choose whether they want to take CTE classes, unless they attend one of the few schools in the country that requires one of the career clusters in their curricula.

Middle school CTE classes tend to focus on developing general workplace skills, such as computer applications or career exploration. However, some middle schools also offer learners introductory courses in a specific CTE cluster, such as health science or agriculture.

One of the most common CTE courses in middle school is career readiness because it teaches students transferrable skills they can use in any career pathway.

Ultimately, the role of CTE in middle school is to introduce students to options in a variety of career clusters to prepare them to choose a pathway to focus on while in high school.

CTE in High Schools


CTE in high school is also taught as an elective, but courses are often offered in greater variety. It's the most popular time for students to choose a career cluster and begin taking CTE classes.

At the high school level, students typically pursue a pathway of courses within a single cluster like business or STEM. These courses tend to be taught by instructors with particular industry experience, which allow students to learn highly specialized career skills at a relatively young age.

Often, these courses culminate in certifications by the end of a student's senior year. Many high schools prepare students for these assessments because certification demonstrates learners' competency with a particular set of skills and signals their readiness to begin work as industry professionals.

The certification process and requirements vary between career clusters, but most CTE pathways lead to some form of certification from either a national governing body or from a leading organization or corporation within a particular field.

But regardless of whether students receive a certification while in high school, the structure of CTE programs ensures that they'll be ready to take the next step in their careers.

CTE in Post-Secondary Institutions


CTE in post-secondary institutions typically includes study within a specific cluster and pathway that ends in graduation and often certification.

Many of these students go straight from the institution to starting their careers.

The career pathways at post-secondary institutions take students from introduction straight through to employment. Learners may also have the chance to get first-hand experience with different tools, scenarios, or principles through internships.

However, postsecondary CTE institutions also tend to cost more money than taking the same classes in high school or middle school.

Some of these institutions are also for-profit colleges, which have a poor reputation for quality of education and successful career placement.

Still, taking CTE courses from a postsecondary school is a viable option for pursuing a technical education. In fact, it’s common for many students right out of high school, whether they’re starting their education from scratch or continuing what they learned in high school.

So now that we’ve looked at where CTE is taught, let’s dive into how it's taught.

What's the Best Way to Teach CTE Classes?


CTE can be taught in a variety of ways, but many teachers find it works best when used with blended learning.

Blended learning is an education strategy that features multiple teaching methods to help students learn more effectively than one method on its own.

In most cases, blended learning involves a mix of seven strategies:

  1. Use multiple types of instructional materials
  2. Incorporate technology for reinforcement
  3. Try new teaching techniques
  4. Keep your traditional methods
  5. Vary your assessments
  6. Mix up group work styles
  7. Try a digital curriculum

Trying blended learning can feel overwhelming, especially with so many things on your plate.

If you're not ready to revamp your teaching style, there is one thing you may be ready to do: improve student engagement in your classroom. For most teachers, keeping learners' attention is the difference between success in the classroom and students being unprepared to take the next step in their careers.

How to Keep Your CTE Students Engaged

Career and technical education is a growing and exciting field filled with opportunities for students. In this article, you've learned more about what CTE is, the 16 career clusters it includes, and where and how you can teach it.

However, getting students to join your CTE program isn't even enough. To keep them excited about future career opportunities, you'll need to keep them alert and engaged in class.

But if you're like the thousands of CTE teachers we've spoken with over the years, student engagement is a constant battle in your classroom. So how can you get your students attention and help them better understand the concepts you're teaching?

Learn more about how to keep students engaged in CTE when you download your free eBook.

You'll learn tips and tricks you can use in the classroom to ensure that your students are focused in class and ready for their future careers.

Get Your eBook: Boost Engagement in Your Classroom