Get ready to hear the term “middle skills” more often. It refers to jobs that require more education than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree, and points to a broad definition of vocational training, or non-degree postsecondary education, that stands to play an increasingly important role in major markets around the world.
Earlier this year, we highlighted a UNESCO study that found that as postsecondary systems have expanded in recent decades, they have also become more diverse in terms of both programme mix and student body. The study notes that enrolments in the non-university sector represent between a fifth and two-fifths of all students in tertiary education in many countries. These programmes include the more technically or vocationally oriented studies of the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector, but also other non-degree programmes in areas such as technology or business administration. In other words, “middle skills.”
There is a growing body of research that underscores the importance of this broad category of postsecondary training in addressing persistent labour market skills gaps and, by extension, helps to drive economic and social development. Harvard Business Review notes that roughly half of the US labour force is engaged in middle skills jobs. “Many employers still struggle to fill certain types of vacancies – especially for so-called middle skills jobs in computer technology, nursing, high-skill manufacturing, and other fields – that require postsecondary technical education and training.”
The situation may become more acute in the US in the years ahead, particularly in some key sectors such as utilities and aerospace, as generational change triggers a large number of retirements and job openings.
Labour market experts in the US estimate that up to 25 million job openings from 2010 to 2020 – about 47% of all projected openings in the US this decade – will require middle skills qualifications.
Most recently, a just-released labour market study in Texas highlights the importance of vocational training, associate degrees, and on-the-job training programmes. The study calls for expanded efforts to promote “multiple paths” to training and employment for younger students – other than the traditional four-year degree model, that is – along with a greater emphasis on apprenticeship training.
The increased focus on non-degree studies in the US reflects a broader pattern in education markets around the world, where policymakers, educators, and private enterprise alike share a growing recognition of the importance of non-degree training in meeting local labour market demands, easing persistent skills gaps, and addressing major social and economic issues, such as high levels of youth unemployment.
Rapid expansion planned for China and India
Last month, the Chinese government announced plans to increase the number of students enrolled in vocational training to 38.3 million by 2020 – a 31% jump over the 29.34 million students currently enrolled at 13,600 vocational schools and colleges across China. This dramatic growth will require not only an expansion of the number of seats in China’s vocational training institutions but also a greater emphasis on quality.
China’s Xinhua News Agency quotes Ge Daokai, head of the Ministry of Education’s vocational education division on this point: “Although [China] has the world’s most vocational education institutions, many of them have problems such as poor management, underdeveloped infrastructure, limited investment and shortage of faculty.
A more effective system needs to be established so that more young people can receive good skills training before they enter the employment market. Also, a more skilled labour force is needed as the country restructures economically from labour-intensive industries to technology-intensive ones.”
A recent item in Education News adds, “In addition to upgrading the current vocational schools, China’s health department is considering converting almost 600 universities into vocational colleges in an effort to ‘offer education and skills training of more edgy and sophisticated professions’.”
Meanwhile, India is struggling with very limited capacity in its vocational training system, which enrolls only 5.5 million people per year, but also with significant quality issues as well.
“Many of the government’s own network of vocational training centres, the so-called industrial training institutes, offer courses that are obsolete, having changed little since the institutes were set up in the 1950s,” notes a recent item in the Financial Times.
In a bid to address these systemic issues, the Indian government has opted to adopt (and adapt) a US-style community college model and aims to open as many as 10,000 such institutions by 2030.
The first community colleges are opening in India now and in May this year, India’s University Grants Commission (UGC) approved 98 skills-based colleges in five states. “The courses on offer are diplomas, advance diplomas and certificate courses [ranging from] six months to two years,” says India Today. “A few courses that are being offered are on tourism and hospitality, power plants, chemistry, information technology, food processing, horticulture, healthcare, automobile management and cast iron foundry.”
Other major markets on board too
India and China are hardly alone in their efforts to expand non-degree training. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Labor Minister Adel Fakeih announced in June that, “Twenty-seven new technical colleges of excellence will be opened across Saudi in September with the support of major international service providers.” The minister estimated that the new colleges would provide up to 53,000 Saudis with advanced technical training.
Similarly, Thailand’s Office of the Vocational Education Commission announced in July that the Thai government will increase spending on vocational training by more than 50% in 2015 (to an estimated 956 million baht (US$29.7 million) compared to 624 million baht in 2014). “Moreover, vocational teaching and learning will be reformed, with greater emphasis on practical training,” notes a government media release.
In Malaysia, the Borneo Post reported in June that, “Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said the Education Act would be amended to make vocational schools and colleges an important element in the national education system in the future.” Vocational programmes account for 10% of Malaysia’s postsecondary enrolment at present, and there are only 87 vocational colleges in the country today. The Malaysian government has announced its intention to expand the number of vocational institutes but also to upgrade the facilities, infrastructure, and teaching staff in its vocational training system.
Finally, in the run-up to next year’s general elections in the UK, the opposition Labour Party is calling for the introduction of new technical degrees within the British education system. Labour proposes that these programmes, focused on engineering and technology, would be offered at universities and yet would be highly practical, designed in collaboration with industry, and provide opportunities for learning in both classroom and workplace settings.
“For too long, governments have believed there is only one way to success through education, which is to follow the conventional academic route: to do General Certificates of Secondary Education, A-levels, a traditional academic subject at university and then on to career,” said Labour Party leader Ed Miliband in a recent speech.
“But we know that conventional academic route doesn’t work for everyone. Our research has shown that in other European countries, particularly in Germany and Switzerland, three-year, good-quality apprenticeships are a serious option for all young people. Despite some recent improvements, we still have a mountain to climb to match ambitions in England.”
The role of the private sector
The examples of renewed emphasis on – and expansion and promotion of – middle skills training options that we have explored here are only that: examples drawn from a wider field of like initiatives in countries around the world. Even so, they suggest a wide range of opportunities for international education providers. These range from the recruitment of foreign students to partnering with institutions and governments overseas to develop curricula, train faculty, or open joint ventures to launch new vocational training institutions.
One thing that is also clear is that the private sector will likely play an important role in major systems expansions for middle skills training. In some markets, private providers will establish and operate vocational training centres, in others they will provide some of the necessary investment to open new colleges and institutes, and in others still they will partner with education providers to help develop curricula or to expand apprenticeship or workplace training options.
In the case of China, for example, Xinhua reports that “Enterprises and non-governmental organisations are encouraged to sponsor vocational schools and colleges. Donations from enterprises to vocational schools will not be taxed and private vocational schools will enjoy preferential loans from banks… Enterprises are also welcomed to work with vocational schools to train their employees and provide internships for students of these schools.”
In Australia, private vocational training centres have come to play a larger role in the market, accounting for an estimated 36% of publicly funded enrolment in further education programmes.
And in the US, the Harvard Business Review argues that “companies can and should take the lead in training workers to fill the middle-skills gap.”
There are a number of intertwining threads in these developments: labour market gaps, employability of graduates, economic and social development, and, from the perspective of prospective students, important questions concerning the value proposition of education and the outcomes of further study. It seems clear that these are some of the important trends that will shape national and international education markets in the coming decades, and that will present both new opportunities and new challenges to education providers and stakeholders across education systems.