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Too often, research into postsecondary workforce and engineering education focuses solely on curricula and ignores student matriculation to high-skill high-wage careers. The purpose of this study is to investigate this subject through dual ethnographies in Project-Based Learning (PBL) Career and Technical Education (CTE) workforce pathways in Silicon Valley. This study looks to better explain functioning pathways. The authors take inspiration from three publications: past research found that seven PBL essentials form good learning outcomes [1]; a measurable outcome of PBL is higher attendance [2]; to which Applied STEM CTE (AS-CTE) [3] framed attendance as a predictor metric of the efficacy of a workforce pathway. We ask which metrics help explain successful workforce CTE pathways. Our ethnography uncovers two distinct postsecondary PBL pathways and explores a new predictive metric of social mobility, which helps to reveal the pathways' struggle to support marginalized students' mobility into the high-skill high-wage building workforce. Despite these challenges, a Labor-Union-administered apprenticeship pathway showed promise in aiding social mobility. The authors uncovered early evidence that social mobility may be added as a metric to a predictive ontology framework of pathway success.
Ryan Lundell1, Jonathan Montoya2, Forest Peterson3, Anthony Kinslow II3,
Renate Fruchter4, Martin Fischer3, Andres Sebastian Bustamante5, Pedro Nava1
1 School of Education, Santa Clara University (United States)
2 Digital Learning Lab, University of California Irvine (United States)
3 Center for Integrated Facility Engineering, Stanford University (United States)
4 Project Based Learning Laboratory, Stanford University (United States)
5 STEM Learning Lab, University of California Irvine (United States)
Too often, research into postsecondary workforce and engineering education focuses solely on
curricula and ignores student matriculation to high-skill high-wage careers. The purpose of this study is
to investigate this subject through dual ethnographies in Project-Based Learning (PBL) Career and
Technical Education (CTE) workforce pathways in Silicon Valley. This study looks to better explain
functioning pathways. The authors take inspiration from three publications: past research found that
seven PBL essentials form good learning outcomes [1]; a measurable outcome of PBL is higher
attendance [2]; to which Applied STEM CTE (AS-CTE) [3] framed attendance as a predictor metric of
the efficacy of a workforce pathway. We ask which metrics help explain successful workforce CTE
pathways. Our ethnography uncovers two distinct postsecondary PBL pathways and explores a new
predictive metric of social mobility, which helps to reveal the pathways’ struggle to support
marginalized students’ mobility into the high-skill high-wage building workforce. Despite these
challenges, a Labor-Union-administered apprenticeship pathway showed promise in aiding social
mobility. The authors uncovered early evidence that social mobility may be added as a metric to a
predictive ontology framework of pathway success.
Keywords: Social mobility, Engineering education, Workforce pathways, Equity, Virtual design and
Despite the fact that Silicon Valley is one of the most technologically advanced regions in the world,
entire groups of people are prevented from partaking in this prosperity. Just as the technology industry
attracts the best talent globally, technical trades taught in the workforce postsecondary Career
Technical Education (CTE) industry also draw talent. Highly skilled workers are in ever-increasing
demand to construct the massive mixed-use development projects in the San José region. For many,
the high-skill CTE pathway is the pathway to high-wage prosperity.
Employing ethnographic methods as postsecondary Applied Science Technology Engineering and
Mathematics (STEM) CTE (AS-CTE) instructors, the investigators observed that many students did not
achieve their goal of social mobility to high-skill, high-wage jobs. These observations necessitate
further inquiry to address that lack of student matriculation into that high-wage high-skill workforce.
Practitioners and theorists must first acknowledge large systemic barriers to success in order to
ensure program efficacy and to also include historically marginalized groups in these successful
Historically, high-skill trades were learned through trade Union–mentored apprentice programs.
Versions of workforce training have taken many forms, and the investigators are attuned to the past
exploitation of non-union vocational programs that largely targeted Black, Indigenous, and People of
Color (BIPOC). These programs did not provide social mobility. We must be clear that the
investigators are not promoting this toxic form of workforce education, nor are we advocating for a
‘cheap’ labor force.
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18TH World Conference on Continuing Engineering Education, 06 - 10 June 2022
The investigators predict the observed lack of social mobility is due to leaks in the education system.
The purpose of this study is to investigate the postsecondary AS-CTE workforce pathways in the San
José region to uncover additional metrics that help explain successful workforce pathways.
Research on Applied STEM Career and Technical Education (AS-CTE) typically frames vocational
education success through input metrics like motivation [2], and administrative qualities like leadership
[3]. Plasman and Gottfried [1], employing a case of AS-CTE, used attendance as an input metric
predictor of a successful workforce pathway. The investigators draw from underpinning concepts in
AS-CTE to guide their formalization of a metric framework that shows an improvement in predictive
efficacy for academic success, building on Plasman and Gottfried’s contribution of an attendance
3.1 Critique of workforce education
There is currently a movement to rebrand the CTE or vocational education pathways for high-skill
labor to attract more diverse students. The unfortunate reality is that despite this attempt, these
pathways cannot escape their toxic past. For many years, vocational institutions have exploited people
locally and abroad. Domestically, this victimization and exploitation included Indigenous youth and
other BIPOC groups [6]. In order to truly address these issues in workforce pathways, we must first
accept and acknowledge injustices such as historical tracking and exploitation of marginalized groups
in vocational institutions. Many training centers or vocational schools were created for proletarization.
In workforce vocational education, the personification of proletarization can be seen in high-tech
manufacturing industries where exploited workers help produce commodities that they cannot afford.
The necessary rebranding of high-tech CTE is evident in fields such as cybersecurity, and coding,
where these fields are being rebranded to attract and retain a more diverse workforce [34]. This
attempt at rebranding and attraction may be the birth of a new era of vocational education, which
continues to exploit a new version of high-skill workers.
3.2 Historical views of CTE certifications
The workforce education system aims to develop human capital. Domestically, this is completed
through the community college system, which educates 40 percent of American undergraduate
students [9]. Community colleges focus on credentials that categorize workers, assigning them
different values from a historical lens. Groeger [10, 11]—in extending Human Capital Theory—posits
that craft employers see this education as a metric of human capital. The investigators are aware of
these origins and the role of credentials and certifications. Although the investigators are well aware of
this framing, we do not wish to view this study through a lens of Human Capital Theory. The
investigators are inspired by Groeger’s [11] problematizing of human capital theory and their critique of
credentialism. Following the lead of Groeger [11], the investigators question an actualization of human
capital for the marginalized.
Viewing CTE history through a critical lens, the investigators entered their ethnographies of the Silicon
Valley postsecondary AS-CTE workforce education centers to develop and teach an AS-CTE course.
4.1 Experiment setting
The investigators studied the role of predictive ontology metrics such as social mobility through
ethnography [12] and examples gained through a community-based participatory research approach
(CBPR) [13]. This CBPR is part of a larger project [15, 17, 18] that includes community participants
such as Union leadership, policymakers, and industry practitioners. The CBPR is collectively known as
the Santa Clara County Construction Careers Association (S4CA). The investigators' methodological
approach does not attempt to interject a fictional perfect reality into our observations [11, 13]. Rather,
we look to understand a pragmatic reality, and then explain that reality and apply the explanation in a
useful way [16]. The ethnography was operated through investigator roles as classroom instructors in
postsecondary Problem-, Project-, Product-, Process-, People-based Learning (5-PBL) [19]
educational settings in community college, apprenticeship, and adult education: note that in a quick
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18TH World Conference on Continuing Engineering Education, 06 - 10 June 2022
census this is the only PBL program the investigators found in Silicon Valley public education. PBL
industry mentor role provided the investigators an additional observatory perspective along with the
CBPR participants which contributed as industry mentors.
The investigators are informed by their larger lived experiences. Before their roles as investigators in
university settings, they were laborers [36, 37]. During these years-long experiences, they took on
leadership roles where they were recognized by their fellow workers as ‘lead’ laborers—carpenter
material handler and concrete laborer respectively—taking on responsibilities including mentoring new
laborers. That lived role allowed for insight and brought a legacy of unique relationships, which
facilitated access to this academic setting.
4.2 Research-practice partnership
The RPP includes educators from four high schools, three community colleges, eight apprenticeship
programs, an adult education program, and two universities. This paper, and hence these
partnerships, focus primarily on the postsecondary education institutions.
4.3 Participants
This study relies on data from participating students, instructors, and mentors. The participants were
recruited from two community colleges which we have combined and assigned the pseudonym
Fiddlers Green College. Participants also come from an apprenticeship education center which we call
the Pipe Trades Education Center.
The community is located in the San José region of Silicon Valley. Regional demographics are
approximately evenly divided between Latinx, Asian, and white. As one of the most linguistically
diverse regions in the country [20], more than half of households primarily speak languages other than
Our participants primarily live in a lower-income working-class community where feeder school
demographics are 50 percent low socioeconomic status, which qualifies these students for free and
reduced-price meals in K-12 schools. Although distinctly working-class and racialized, the students are
high-performing with their public schools ranked among the best in the state and country.
In order to address barriers and inequities in workforce pathways, the investigators explored the social
mobility of these pathways through taking on roles as associate faculty members at two local
community colleges collectively called Fiddlers Green [22]. We define social mobility as the students’
perceptions that their education can award them a living wage career ($ 60.29 $ 117.60 per hour
[36]) and a viable pathway to a higher education [17]. The Applied STEM CTE (AS-CTE) courses
taught implemented a social and environmental justice–focused virtual design and construction
curriculum [12, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 17, 30, 31, 32, 18, 33]. The course is a stepping stone from a 2-year
associate degree to a 4-year bachelor's degree: course content includes engineering tools such as
ALICE Technologies BIM (Building Information Model) tools for preconstruction (5D BIM) and
management (6D BIM) [33].
5.1 Interaction with a college student
The following narrative explores the experiences of one student who represents the many shared
experiences of students in these pathways.
The quote below is an account of an instructor/investigator’s first encounter with a postsecondary
student outside a classroom at Fiddlers Green College. The student shares their reasoning for
attending the postsecondary CTE course.
Although they did well in high school (secondary) and had completed a CTE education
program, they could not find a job. In their opinion, the college’s residential
construction framing course would give them an opportunity to secure a ‘good job.’ I
asked if they ever considered an apprenticeship. They said no. The student preferred
community college because they could work during the day.
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18TH World Conference on Continuing Engineering Education, 06 - 10 June 2022
This was a high-performing student in their late twenties. The student had perfect attendance in their
secondary and postsecondary courses. This student is a product of the secondary school which acts
as a feeder CTE program for the pipeline from secondary to postsecondary workforce education in the
region. Despite filling all the requirements to transition to a career-centered postsecondary education
pathway and subsequent career, this student was still taking courses at community college well into
their late twenties. They were also working an unrelated low-wage job to supplement their career
education. This lack of matriculation can be the result of many factors, but we must acknowledge the
lack of articulation which works to hinder the social mobility of this student and others like them. Their
pathway thus far has not led to the promised high-skill, high-wage workforce identified as the end goal
of college CTE programs.
Below, an instructor/investigator describes arriving at a Fiddlers Green classroom early and waiting
outside, which allowed them to have conversations with several students. Their individual and
collective stories were very similar to this student and representative of many others. The instructor
discusses the issue of limited enrolment capacity, and the instructor/investigator ethnographer
describes their concern for the students who showed up for the course only to be turned away.
With enthusiasm, students asked if they would be able to add the class. The senior
instructor replied that they were not sure how many could add and to show up next
week. They then released the group and proceeded to explain to me that we needed
to cap the class at 18 students. I thought it was important to let them know there
would be no additions and not to waste their time. The senior instructor’s response:
just tell them next week.
It is not uncommon for community college CTE programs to be heavily impacted, but this interaction
highlighted a potential roadblock for students. Programs’ lack of transparency about the reality of their
policies provides more barriers for students. Unfortunately, many students returned to the following
course and were turned away. This instructor did not see their time as valuable. A complete disregard
for students’ time seemed to permeate much of the postsecondary CTE program at Fiddlers Green.
There were many instances where the instructors made it clear that they were not invested in
accommodating students’ schedules. Student needs in scheduling were not adequately considered.
More importantly, the instructors were not transparent about the program’s expectations and policies.
The attitudes and subsequent policies created inequitable programs where many of these students
were left in limbo, consistently a few courses away from certificates and degree completion. The
completion of these programs would theoretically give them the credentials to gain access to the high-
skill, high-wage job market. These experiences revealed that the labyrinthine pathway to work and
career still has many forks and blocks, and that its outcomes are often unfair.
5.2 Interaction with a college administrator
Fiddlers Green’s response when asked how many students have petitioned for an associates degree
in construction technology this past year.
There are typically nine per year of Associate of Science and Art combined.
Despite this information, the investigators could not actually find a case where a student had
completed their college workforce program. The investigators had themselves automatically
received an Associate in Art when they petitioned for an Associate in Science—it was not
clear if the nine degrees issued were to nine distinct students or to only five students.
5.3 Interaction with a pipe trades administrator
At the Pipe Trades Education Center, the investigator's role is that of a guest to observe an often-
unseen reality in CTE education. The Center is administered by a trade Union, and without a specific
reason to be on that site, you would not know it exists. A complex of clean, low-rise education
buildings is tucked away adjacent to a commercial zone, with a solidly constructed iron fence
protecting the site.
The investigators interacted with students and administrators, revealing that an apprenticed pipe
trades journeyperson makes over 130 percent of the regional mean income. In addition, they have
pension-protected benefits, hiring hall, Union-negotiated labor standards and job protections, as well
as continued skills development.
The following quotes are from discussions with an administrator about student matriculation.
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18TH World Conference on Continuing Engineering Education, 06 - 10 June 2022
The administrator describes how current pathways make it difficult for students to transfer to higher
There should be a new pathway for journeypersons graduating from the building
trades to earn a bachelor of science degree—the current pathways don’t fit their
needs as first-generation students navigating through transfer requirements to various
university systems.
The structure of postsecondary pathways hurts the ability of first-generation students to obtain
advanced degrees. One of the main purposes of education institutions should be to promote social
mobility for marginalized groups. In such a vital sector of the Silicon Valley economy, we should have
a clear and sustainable pathway that meets the needs of all community members; without this
pathway, we limit access to jobs that pay a living wage and strengthen the middle class.
The administrator describes the success of the Pipe Trades Education Center in their formal
partnership with a Local Educational Agency (LEA) and adds a vision for the future.
Right now, the Pipe Trades Education Center graduates each year a handful of
apprentices (less than a dozen) that have successfully petitioned for an associate of
science; however, in each of the next years, there will be increasingly more graduates
as the students that started the first year of the new associate pathway complete the
last year.
Although more data must be gathered, the Pipe Trades Education Center has initially created a
successful pathway for students to enter postsecondary education. Using the Pipe Trades Education
Center as a model, the building trades industry in Silicon Valley can create successful pathways that
promote social mobility for marginalized groups.
This study reveals a lack of both social mobility and perceived social mobility for students meeting all
other success metrics.
The collective narrative of these students reveals a contradiction between how the workforce is
displayed and the objective realities of historically marginalized students: social mobility is symbolic
and not actual. The failure of the community colleges to create a functioning pathway contributes to
the predatory lending of for-profit education institutions: since the community college is a bureaucratic
labyrinth that is difficult to escape, students become easily swindled by the provocative marketing of
these for-profit institutions and their empty promises of social mobility. The result has been student
debt with no promise or hope for a job after graduation. In the end, students may be able to gain
cultural capital through certifications, but they are unable to convert that cultural capital to economic
capital [38]. The Pipe Trades Education Center has begun to offer a counter-narrative, where social
mobility is seen as a defining metric of success along with attendance. For an equitable workforce, we
must reflect upon the historical roots of workforce pathways and avoid superficial improvements of
past wrongs. To change systemic problems, we need changes to the system. Let us first discard
traditional instructions and take only what is useful to avoid perpetuating historical injustices. The Pipe
Trades counter-narrative reveals that intentional pathways can lead to a socially mobile workforce.
Classes articulated to postsecondary institutions, a living wage, and protections of health and safety
might seem like a pipe dream; however, this reality exists in trade education at the authors' regional
Pipe Trades Education Center.
This study sheds light on how postsecondary Career Technical Education (CTE) institutions fall short
of their mission to increase employment and social mobility for students from marginalized
communities. Historically, access to education is not enough [10]. Unequal access to education
credentials sustains a privileged ruling class [11]. The demographic breakdown of these inequalities is
seen in neighborhoods throughout Silicon Valley [17]. This study examines possible correlations and
connections between inequities in the built environment and postsecondary CTE facilities.
If we understand the inequities present in society and how postsecondary institutions generate social
mobility, then we can begin to discover the best practices to change these inequities. Motivated by a
solidarity to their community, the authors aim to inform and involve community stakeholders so
institutions facilitate their workforce's mobility. Too often, underrepresented minorities and/or low-
income individuals are burdened by social and environmental injustices that impact livelihood and lack
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18TH World Conference on Continuing Engineering Education, 06 - 10 June 2022
of mobility. In high-tech regions like Silicon Valley, residents are exposed to environmental stresses
and contaminants that negatively impact the health of the community [17]. Furthermore, many live with
neurotoxins like lead paint, carcinogens like asbestos, or in close proximity to brownfields and
manufacturing facilities of unknown and mixed pollutants [21].
The authors explored pathways from the apprenticeship to regional university undergraduate
programs. In discussion with the apprentice education center's local educational agency administrator,
the investigators discovered a newly-formed pathway which has potential to become a successful
pathway for marginalized students to enter higher education: academic credit is given for knowledge
gained through high-skill apprenticeship education. However, despite the initial success of this pipe
trades pathway, more work must be done. For example, academic hegemony demands that students
meet the needs of the institutions that serve them instead of the institutions considering the needs of
the students. This approach results in a complex pathway that limits the opportunity for the most
marginalized community members to enter a highly skilled and socially mobile workforce. These
pathways could adopt more horizontal power structures and let communities lead to meet their diverse
needs. One way to work towards this is to schedule courses around student need rather than faculty
convenience, with an occupationally aligned trade union administering the education center. Lastly,
with no meaningful data and no alignment between apprentice programs and community colleges,
Silicon Valley building and trades pathways have not maximized their ability to integrate marginalized
community members into middle-class jobs.
Union apprenticeship programs—such as the Pipe Trades Education Center—are an apparent
pathway to a higher education degree. When students understand concepts such as social justice,
they begin to believe deeply in social mobility. The skilled apprentice described in this paper would
never be allowed to teach even a CTE community college course; in contrast, even though the
investigators knew nothing specifically of the topic they were teaching, their advanced degrees allowed
them to teach community college classes.
Due to their positionality and particular lens, the investigators understand that these ethnographies
have limitations in generality and blindness; thus, this study should not be generalized beyond its
unique setting. The investigators go in-depth with specific students and experiences in their unique
pathway; thus, while every effort is made to accurately describe their students’ experiences in the
pathway, blind spots and misinterpretations will inevitably occur. Lastly, the investigators provided
extensive pre-experiment education in VDC and PBL to the regional CTE construction instructors so
that they could collaborate with the RPP by administering a 5-PBL VDC program; however, once the
investigators exited the ethnography, the pathway program was not sustainable.
This work was supported by the ECMC Bridging the Gaps to Postsecondary Career and Technical
Education fellowship. Thank you to Professor James Bartlett and Professor Michelle Bartlett from
North Carolina State University. This paper is a substantial revision with updated and new content of
versions of this paper titled “It's Just a Pipe Dream: Equitable Workforce Pathways For Silicon Valley,”
which was published as a research gate preprint, and a journal article titled Fiddlers Green College:
Looking for Equitable Workforce Pathways in Silicon Valley,” which was published in the Journal of
Problem Based Learning in Higher Education.
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... This lack of critical thinking and an overemphasis on standardized testing perpetuates a false binary between "brain-work" and "hand-work" (Rose, 2014), so marginalized students get tracked into vocational programs that rarely give space for critical analyses of societal injustice, which only serves to frustrate the workers' ability to confront and transform inequitable economic and environmental policies (Darder, 2017). For instance, in Silicon Valley, building and construction pathways have become a road-to-nowhere and rarely lead to higher education or high-wage careers (Lundell et al., 2022). Ultimately, our own construction pathway utilized the concept of social justice as a symbolic gesture; we became what La Paperson calls the "second university:" hegemonic radicals who assume talking about freedom will result in freedom (2017). ...
Conference Paper
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The separation of disciplines in secondary education is an inherent obstacle to project-based learning (PBL): educators go years without meaningful collaboration, critical feedback, or self-reflection (Jacobs, 2010). As a result, many inhabit an isolated bubble where no space is given to interdisciplinary collaboration; this isolation limits the authenticity of the projects students can produce. Compounding the dilemma is neoliberal logic, which disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities (Brown, 2017). The curriculum is depoliticized; students are motivated to excel academically so they can compete in the market rather than work towards more societal equity. Additionally, marginalized groups are tracked into vocational pathways that focus only on basic skills training and give no space to critical thinking, which hurts the worker’s ability to confront and transform inequitable neoliberal policies (Darder, 2017). While PBL in STEM and vocational pathways have positive impacts on teaching and learning outcomes, implemented without a critical pedagogy framework, PBL has not been shown to increase critical consciousness (Montoya et al., 2018). This research aims to discover how PBL and an interdisciplinary curriculum (Montoya et al., 2020) implemented through a framework of critical pedagogy can impact the critical consciousness of students and teachers.
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Integrating Critical Pedagogy with Career Technical Education
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