A new report from the Paris-based OECD secretariat, Skills beyond school: synthesis report, OECD reviews of vocational education and training, attests to a growing recognition that around the world, economies and employers are increasingly in need of employees with professional training and vocational skills, also sometimes referred to as “middle skills.”
The report is based on a study of the policy environments in 20 countries as they pertain to their current ability to nurture such skills, and it looks at what is required to enhance their capacity to “ensure training provision matches the needs of the labour market.”
This ICEF Monitor article will look at the findings of the report that underline the urgency of such training, as well as the challenges that must be overcome to provide students with a high quality of training that can serve them well in the marketplace.
Setting the stage
Right at the outset of Skills beyond schools, the authors note:
- “Nearly two-thirds of overall employment growth in the European Union (EU25) is forecast to be in the ‘technicians and associate professionals’ category.
- A recent US projection is that nearly one-third of job vacancies by 2018 will require some postsecondary qualification, but less than a four-year degree.”
Separately, another study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce finds that of the 55 million job openings in the US through the years to 2020 that will require postsecondary education, fully 30% will require some college or an associate degree. Not a bachelor degree or more than that (those qualifications will be required for another 35% of the 55 million jobs). No, the 30% refers to a shorter-term (of at least six months but significantly less than four years), specific kind of training required for particular jobs, with qualifications including certificates, diplomas, and professional bachelor’s degrees.
Even now the pressure is on to fill middle-skills jobs. Earlier this year, we reported Harvard Business Review’s finding that roughly half of the US labour force is engaged in middle skills jobs. HBR noted:
“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.”
Emphasis on the training
The report notes that vocational and professional training programmes should be “driven by fast-changing industry requirements,” and that their linkages to industry be serious and strong. This appears to be a challenge – to varying degrees – across all the 20 countries studied, and that “work-based learning is too often weak and unsystematic.”
The report emphasised how crucial it is that industry stakeholders be substantially included in the development of vocational and professional qualifications to:
- Help ensure the job-readiness of graduates;
- Promote the ability of industry to identify and recognise the skills possessed by graduates.
Regarding its assessment that work-based learning is often inadequate in the vocational and professional programmes of today, the report recommended:
“All professional education and training programmes should involve some work-based learning as a condition of receiving government funding. The work-based learning should be systematic, quality assured, and credit-bearing.”
The report’s underlining of the centrality of work-based learning and integrated industry linkages is timely given the proliferation of vocational training schools and initiatives across so many countries of late. In our earlier post on middle-skills training, we reported on the significant expansion of and funding allocations to vocational and professional programmes in China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the UK’s dawning recognition that traditional educational pathways should no longer be the only option promoted to secondary students. The leader of the UK’s opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, said in a speech earlier this year:
“We know that the 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.”
Challenging old belief systems
Chief among the challenges facing the development of high quality, industry-recognised, adequately funded middle-skills programmes is changing the still-prevalent belief that three to four years of university education is the way to go to achieve success in one’s career.
The report pointed to a discrepancy between the real skills demanded by today’s labour markets and the outdated convictions of many teachers and parents that university education is the prestigious – and thus only – option.
Speaking to University World News, Stefan Wolter, chair of the OECD’s group of experts on technical education, said:
“Young people should be able to choose their training pathway according to their own aptitudes and skills and less in terms of parents’ and teachers’ concerns about status.”
Such competing trends – i.e., the needs of current economies versus old notions of what constitutes “an education” – might be part of the reason that vocational and professional education sectors in many countries are developing unevenly and in some cases sluggishly. Such sectors frequently remain sidelined, the poor cousins of the university sector.
This points to a real danger in the development of professional education and training programmes: countries are now aware of their urgency yet not according them the respect, funding, profile, and systematic naming and branding of levels and qualifications they require to be viable alternatives to other forms of tertiary education.
The report sums up the problems it identified across the 20 countries studied like this:
“Often the sector is highly fragmented, with programmes uncomfortably poised between schools and universities, with qualifications that may not be well understood within the country – and certainly not internationally. Nomenclature is variable, and the institutional basis for the sector sometimes uncertain.
Qualification systems and frameworks do not always help transparency. The needs of adults for more flexible modes of study are sometimes unmet. Effective transitions and articulation with other sectors of education and training are often elusive. The potential benefits of competence-based approaches are not always fully realised.”
The OECD calls for “a clearly recognised international nomenclature” to improve the status of middle-skills training institutes and allow them to compete on equal terms with other educational options. As part of this, it recommends the adoption of the term “professional education and training” to brand the sector and to contribute to international recognition of its qualifications.
Structuring and funding the sector
Another factor that has hampered the profile of professional education and training, according to the report, has been its murky and all-over-the-place positioning – sometimes integrated into universities, sometimes out on its own and integrated neither with universities nor with industry. The report advises that professional education and training sectors be separate from universities, both in terms of their definition and their funding. It recommends the following:
“Professional education and training needs an institutional base that:
a) offers short-cycle professional programmes in a tier of institutions separate from universities;
b) makes use, where relevant, of the successful model of universities of applied science;
c) consolidates training providers into institutions of adequate size; and
d) provides a consistent framework of public funding for professional education and training, avoiding distortions, and backed by quality assurance.”
Strengthening and legitimisation of the sector
The report goes on to identify many other challenges to the professional education and training sector as well as recommendations. Many of these recommendations can be understood to have one theme – namely, a drive to further professionalise, standardise, and by default, legitimise the sector – with the following results:
- Its profile and image improves;
- More students see it as a worthy educational option;
- More employers understand its qualifications;
- The labour market receives more graduates with job-ready skills;
- There can be more structured and productive pathways between it and other educational pathways;
- World economies benefit from a greater diversity of graduates to serve its more multifaceted requirements for growth and prosperity.
As much as there are challenges, there are opportunities
As much as the report identifies room for improvement across OECD countries in terms of how they develop and treat their vocational and professional training sectors, it does so because of a very exciting fact:
There is a proliferation of jobs and skills demanded by economies across the world, and these allow for a wider range of educational options than ever before.
This opening up of educational possibilities also opens up room for more students to find satisfaction – and fulfilling careers. Not every student fits comfortably into the traditional model of education that culminates in a four-year university degree or graduate school.
It also opens up new opportunities for education providers and marketers as the growing emphasis on vocational and professional training that is reflected in the recent OECD report points to increasing prospects for the sector, in terms of both delivery in markets around the world as well as recruitment for study abroad.