Ready, Set, CTE

A North Carolina district reinvents career-technical education with a student-centered approach.

7 min read

Voice of the Educator

Ready, Set, CTE


The Onslow County Schools district, headquartered in Jacksonville, North Carolina, has a unique, student-centered approach to career-technical education. Our CTE department employs 108 educators who teach more than 150 CTE courses spanning 14 career cluster areas. We draw nearly 10,000 students representing a wide range of academic achievement levels, interests and post-high school ambitions. 

Our mission is to provide students with opportunities to earn skills and industry credentials that will help them successfully transition to postsecondary education or a career. We want to make sure that students are career ready when they leave us–and that they know all the options available to them. 

We also want to ensure that Onslow CTE is a viable and reliable part of the local economic engine. We are reintroducing ourselves to the community as a workforce development tool and building our programs so they more closely align with the regional job market. We haven’t eliminated the traditional CTE courses but are expanding our horizons. 

Students’ trajectories differ and inevitably, value judgments are imposed on students’ choices, no matter where they fall on the spectrum. But Onslow’s CTE program attracts a broad cross-section of students. Our learners include the traditional cohort (those on a high-school-to-workforce trajectory) and the nontraditional cohort (high-achievers on a four-year-college track). I attribute this to the fact that our CTE programs prepare students for jobs in high-demand, high-wage fields. For instance, we offer a cybersecurity program as part of our information technology pathway. Demand for qualified cybersecurity professionals is high at the nearby Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and throughout the nation.

CTE and the Local Economy

Our data shows that, regardless of their post-high school plans, about 60% percent of Onslow County’s students will end up living within 50 miles of home after they graduate from high school or college. As my colleagues and I develop Onslow’s CTE programming, we have to consider how we will prepare students for future employment in the region.

Onslow County has a sizable retail and service industry, and a thriving residential and commercial construction industry. Our largest employer is Camp LeJeune Marine Base, which is constantly changing and growing, creating many civilian job opportunities. And just beyond Onslow, in the surrounding counties, are several manufacturing companies that employ local residents.

We consider all of this as we review labor market data and design our CTE programming. Are our courses serving the employer demands in our area? Do we need to develop new programs to create sustainable talent pipelines?

Another valuable resource: advisory groups. We operate a business advisory council made up of chambers of commerce, community colleges, local employers and NC Works Career Centers. We are also creating a workforce development advisory committee. Many employers are experiencing skills gaps from workers retiring and cycling out of the workforce. The new committee will help ensure our CTE programs are meeting those skill needs. It will also develop ways to incentivize companies to relocate to the eastern North Carolina region. 

Students’ Interests Drive Decisions

Post high-school plans can include a lot of scenarios and pathways, so we use the Onslow County Schools “Ready, Set, Onslow College and Career Planning System” developed by Kuder. The platform serves as a one-stop portal for middle- and high-school students where they can access research-based career assessments to identify their interests, skills confidence and work values. 

The system is set up to help students make choices — so choices aren’t made for them. And those choices should be based on students’ measured interests. 

“Interests, as opposed to achievement, are invisible,” says Michael Elder, college and career readiness director for Onslow County Schools. “I can’t look at your end-of-grade test in science and, based on performance, gauge whether you’re interested in science. I can only see if you were good (or bad) at it on that day. An interests’ assessment brings that insight.”

Effective career exploration and planning begins when students discover what they enjoy doing. Elder puts it this way: “There’s been pushback against encouraging students to pursue passion-based careers. But we all know that if you don’t care about what you’re doing, you won’t perform it at the same level. Passion has to be a part of the equation.”

Once students identify their passions, they can use the system to develop their four-year course plan. The plan will align with their assessment results and provide information about options for life after high school. 

Experiencing Career Pathways Firsthand 

The Eastern North Carolina Regional Skills Center, or ENCRSC, is an $11 million, 50,000-square-foot facility that prepares students for careers through advanced training and skill development. Since opening its doors in August 2019, ENCRSC has drawn a diverse group of 200 students from seven area high schools. 

Certifications offered through ENCRSC include cybersecurity, animation and design, automotive technology, collision repair technology, culinary arts, and welding technology. Credential programs include Adobe, Inc., the American Welding Society, the Automotive Service Excellence Education Foundation, the Computing Technology Industry Association, I-CAR and the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart.

ENCRSC’s core strength is connecting CTE instruction with regional employers. It’s about increasing the number of students who earn degrees or credentials in fields aligned with the regional labor market.

Francisca Gray is one of five career development coordinators serving Onslow County Schools. The CDCs develop work-based learning opportunities for students at ENCRSC and throughout the district, while providing counselors and teachers with the tools they need to deliver effective career guidance interventions to students. Their goal is to connect what students are learning in the classroom to what’s going on in the world of work. “This is important because it makes learning relevant for students,” says Gray. “Particularly in CTE, real-world relevance is foundational.”

A CTE Student Success Story

Miranda Bean got a late start in CTE. She was a senior at Onslow’s Southwest High when she entered the CTE program and began observing professional paramedics in ambulance ride-alongs. She spent nearly 50 hours aboard the trucks. She also completed a public safety class, two emergency medical technology courses and a firefighter technology course. Bean earned an EMT-Basic certification, four FEMA/National Incident Management System certifications and served as a volunteer firefighter with the Southwest Volunteer Fire Department. “With any public safety field that you go into, you’ll come across the other departments at some point in your career,” Bean says. “I wanted to experience another side to enhance my learning.”

Soon after graduating from high school, Bean landed a full-time job as an Emergency Medical Technician-Basic with Carolina Ambulance Specialty Transport, a local employer. She also enrolled in an anatomy and physiology course, a prerequisite for the paramedic training program at Lenoir Community College. She plans to pursue a career with the Onslow County EMS Department after completing the program at Lenoir. At 18, Bean has clocked roughly 800 hours as an EMT-B, and is making swift progress toward her dream job. 

“It’s where I’ve wanted to work since I first jumped on the truck,” Bean says. “Without the Onslow CTE program, I would still be wondering what I’m doing. I would never have this job as an EMT-B. I’m on track to be a licensed paramedic before I turn 20.” 

Chris Bailey is the career and technical education director for Onslow County Schools. During his 27 years in public education, Bailey has served as a CTE teacher, career development coordinator, elementary assistant principal, and high school assistant principal. The North Carolina Association for Career & Technical Education named Bailey CTE Director of the Year in 2019. 

North Carolina’s Future-Ready Course of Study high school graduation requirements encourage students to use their required elective credits to complete a concentration in an area of special interest such as Career and Technical Education. 


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