A skilful approach to employment

by Barbara Ischinger
Director for Education and Skills

WSC2013_skill32_MI_177July brought some good news and some bad news. The good news is that vocational and technical skills are flourishing and I watched young people with those skills competing to find who’s best in the world at the WorldSkills Competition held in Leipzig, Germany, earlier in the month. Over a thousand young people, representing 65 countries and regions across the world, were demonstrating their skills in everything from welding to web design. Korea topped the medal table (including gold for confectionery/pastry making with chocolate sculptures too impressive to eat) with Switzerland in second place. The level of technical expertise on show was astounding, but what impressed me more than anything was the poise and self-confidence along with the commitment to excellence and professionalism of all the competitors. And it wasn’t just for the competitors  it was a big festival of vocational skills for the general public. Anyone could try their hand at a new skill at a workbench or computer while young people could also seek advice on their choice of job and planning their career.

Now the bad news: OECD announced last week that unemployment in OECD countries is expected to  remain high throughout 2014, with young people and the low-skilled hit hardest . Unemployment can have long-lasting repercussions on young people.  Even when they do eventually get a job, they are likely to face an ongoing penalty in the labour market, earning significantly reduced wages over the course of their lifetime. And the psychological impacts can also be long lasting, as young people become discouraged, de-motivated and worried about their prospects for attaining economic independence in the future. And yet…in many OECD countries, there are thousands of jobs that remain unfilled, often requiring technical and vocational skills or providing the opportunity to learn them.

What these observations imply is that we have to do more to connect employers and prospective employees together. One way to do that is through vocational education and training (VET). Germany , Austria  and Switzerland have a strong VET tradition. But many OECD countries have not developed their VET systems as extensively as they might or their VET system is not responding effectively to the needs of employers. Indeed, employer representatives’ top priority for vet reform is to encourage closer partnership with employers . Another key obstacle to overcome is that many people see VET as only a second-best option for those who are not suited to academic education, so more able students are reluctant to pursue this path towards a career or they may even be actively dissuaded from doing so.

This must change. One way we can promote such a change is by communicating to students and parents alike that a high-quality VET education can be the ticket into the labour market and a good career path, even during an economic downturn. As this year’s Education at a Glance shows, across the OECD, individuals with a vocationally-oriented secondary education are more likely to be employed (76%) than those with a general upper secondary education (70%); they are also less likely to be unemployed.  Another way to encourage students to consider vocational training is by making the pathways between general and vocational education more flexible, so that at any point a student in vocational education can transfer to an academic programme and vice versa, without finding all their options closed off.  And of course, all VET programmes need to focus providing quality skills that are relevant in the labour market – equipping young people not just for their first job but for their longer-term employability. 

On 8 October, the OECD will release the first results from the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) . The first-of-its-kind survey will give us a direct assessment of the literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills people have, together with information on the skills they use at home, in the workplace and in their communities and a great deal of background information, including their education pathways, qualifications and labour market experience. The survey results will provide countries with new evidence about the actual skill level and distribution of their 16-65 year olds as well as insights into where mismatches between skills supply and demand lie. These results will provide OECD and countries with new evidence we can use formulate better policies to help people to develop their skills, offer them to the labour market, and ultimately use them productively.

Yes, it’s going to be another tough year for a lot of people in OECD countries, particularly young people; but we must all work together – using our own unique set of skills – to turn the bad news into an opportunity to create something much better.

OECD work on skills
OECD Skills Strategy
OECD work on Vocational Education and Training
Skills Beyond School Report: United States
View Dr Barbara Ischinger’s keynote speech on Better Skills, Better Lives at the International Skills Standards Organisation conference “Tackling the Global Talent Gap”
Photo credit: WorldSkills Leipzig 2013

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