February is Career and Technical Education (CTE) month. If it were not for CTE, I’m not sure I would be in the career I love, today. I will forever be grateful for my high school career and technical education (CTE), Ford Motor Company Fund (Ford Fund), and Ford Motor Company. I’m grateful to CTE for giving me a direction, to Ford Motor Company for giving me countless career opportunities, and to Ford Fund for providing the resources to incubate, refine, and sustain Ford Next Generation Learning (Ford NGL). And as you know, Ford NGL is all about creating high school career academies that allow students to learn academics through the lens of a career (CTE).
My affinity for CTE goes back to my high school days when I took my favorite courses — business and secretarial. The knowledge and skills gained ultimately landed me a job at Ford Motor Company at the ripe old age of 17. Dressed in my finest adult clothes, I walked into the employment testing area of Ford World Headquarters with sweaty palms and an elevated heartbeat. I waited in the lobby, along with other applicants who were there that day, to be called in for my shorthand and typing test.
In my mind, I could see my life in front of me, and it was spectacular! I was going to ace these tests and be a secretary at Ford Motor Company. There was no doubt in my mind! Waiting in that room, I remember thinking about how my mom and dad both worked for Ford. My Mom had taken secretarial courses in high school, and twenty years earlier she too was sitting in the Ford Motor Company waiting room hoping to pass her test. My dad took courses in drawing and drafting and became an illustrator at Ford. His job was to draw vehicle components with all the required dimensions. Today, of course, those illustrations are all generated by a computer.
I had to pass these tests, not only for myself, but I didn’t want to let my parents down. You see, they told me ever since I could remember that “I would work for Ford someday and have the same opportunities that they received as Ford employees.” No, there was never talk of college in our household.
So how did I do on the test, you ask? I nailed it! In fact, I was one of two people out of the 12 that tested that passed both tests. It was a glorious day for sure! Within days, I had several interviews and employment offers from Ford. Ultimately, I accepted one to start on May 1st, 1978 at Ford Motor Company’s Steering Column and Controls Department in Dearborn, Michigan, Engineering Building #5. Remember that old song “I’m Sitting on Top of the World?” Well, that’s exactly how I felt. I was working for one of the largest, well-respected companies in the world, and my parents were so proud of me!
My first paycheck was $795 per month! I was rich for sure! One of the first things I did was buy a brand new 1978 Mustang, five-speed, racing yellow hatchback, and paid a whopping $78 a month for that sweet ride. (BTW, I am terrible at remembering numbers, but I will never forget those numbers — ever!)
That’s all old history now, but these many, many, many years later, I am still associated with Ford Motor Company and Ford Motor Company Fund. My CTE education was the foundation for my entire career. It opened the door for me to be part of a company in which I could spread my wings and continue to grow. I often say that “I went to the University of Ford,” and they gave me all the education I needed to be successful in life. I worked for Ford Motor Company for nearly 32 years. I did take a three-year break to work for the Detroit Lions Football Team (owned by the Ford family) and retired in 2013 only to come back and manage a program that I helped build at the Ford Motor Company Fund, namely, Ford NGL.
Over my years at Ford, I had the opportunity to work in engineering, product planning, product development, finance, heavy truck, business strategy, the Sheldon Road Plant, human resources, and, finally, Ford Fund… So why did I tell you all this?- It’s not to bore you with my life story, but it’s because it was CTE that taught me how to think critically, to problem solve, to work well with others, to ask questions, to find answers, to work hard, and to always give my best. It taught me that attitude and mindset are just as important as one’s skills. It taught me that things change, and you need to keep up. You clearly need to be a lifelong learner. It taught me that I was as smart and valued as someone who had a prestigious degree. It taught me that I could be or do just about anything if I set my mind to it. In fact, knowing the value of CTE from personal experience is why I love what I do today. It was, and remains, the foundation of my work ethic, my curiosity, and my desire to do more and better.
For all those reasons, I will push forward and continue this fight to ensure that all students have access to CTE and career academies. This kind of relevant, authentic, real-world education can work for EVERY STUDENT.
Do you know what else CTE did for me? CTE showed me what I didn’t want to do. For example, my experience working with a criminal lawyer as a secretary gave me nightmares — real, honest to goodness, nightmares! I realized I did not have the stomach to work for a criminal lawyer and see and hear all the things I had to see and hear every day. The criminal attorney even offered me a good-paying position with the law firm, but I just couldn’t imagine myself working there long term.
My experience working in my high school as a secretary for an Area Coordinator is another story. It taught me how to be part of a team and to manage the students who worked for me in the office. It taught me how to “adult” and hone my workplace skills. It taught me to mentor students and to understand the importance of leadership. I learned how to make hard decisions and be able to justify those decisions. I was also offered a job working for the Area Coordinator, but, as you may recall, my parents’ voices were always ringing in my ears. “Cheryl, you too will work for Ford someday.”
Also, my business partners in both the law office and the Area Coordinator office taught me the value of hard work, responsibility, trustworthiness, and dependability. They gave me guidance and helped me make decisions. They encouraged me and held me to perform at a high standard. Their encouraging words and mentorship were so important to my career and to who I am today.
My CTE skills got me in the door at Ford Motor Company. My skills and approach to work demonstrated my value, and my employer helped me get the training I needed to be successful. If it weren’t for CTE, I honestly wonder where I would be today. I didn’t love my academics. I didn’t even love school, but I did love going to my business/secretarial courses, and I looked forward to working on the yearbook.
So, you see my love for CTE is deep, and I am lucky to have had that experience. It is the reason I am so passionate about my work today. It makes me ask why learning experiences like I had would not work for EVERY SINGLE STUDENT. That student may be in engineering, health, IT, robotics, digital media and arts, hospitality, or one of the other career pathways in their high school. There they are gaining a better understanding of what it takes to be successful in a field of their interest. They are learning what they like and what they don’t. They are developing transferable skills needed in any career pathway. They may not realize it at the time, but they are building the foundation for their future success.
So, I leave you with his. Please hug a CTE teacher today. Thank a business partner who supported you in your CTE class. Be a mentor to students in their CTE and career academy courses. If you own a business or work in a business — contact your district’s CTE director, and ask them how you can support a career pathway or career academy in your field.
I hope you see how important CTE was to me and can be to so many other young people. You can, and will, make an enormous impact in a young person’s life when you support CTE. If you are a district superintendent, a chamber executive, or an influencer in your career field, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. Learn about how you can be part of a system that transforms education to better serve young people, and build your community’s talent-development pipeline. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Executive Director, Ford NGL