Are vocational programmes preparing school leavers for a risky job market?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Employment rates among adults with upper secondary education as highest level of education attained, by type of programme 25-34 year-olds (2013)

One of the most dramatic consequences of the economic crisis has been the soaring levels of youth unemployment in several OECD countries; and the hesitant recovery of the past years was insufficient to improve the job prospects of young people. At the end of the first quarter of 2013, youth unemployment rates still exceeded 25% in nine OECD countries, including Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. High youth unemployment is a huge waste of human potential and an unacceptable social tragedy.

Unemployment is a consequence of economic recession and the resulting dearth of jobs. At the same time, high youth unemployment reveals the weak spots in the connections between education and training systems and labour markets. When demand for labour weakens, differences become more visible between education and training systems that are preparing young people well for employability and those that are performing this service less well. The transition between school and work is the first link to break. That’s why the numbers of NEET (“Not in Employment, Education or Training”) is such an important indicator. In 2013, 39 million 16-29 year-olds across OECD countries were out of school and unemployed. About half of them were not even actively looking for a job and seem to have disappeared off the radar screens of their countries’ social institutions.

OECD countries are looking for ways to fine-tune education and training systems so that they respond better to labour market needs. Learning from other countries that manage to develop students’ employability through their education systems is a helpful strategy, and the OECD assists countries in this effort. The recently published OECD Skills Outlook 2015 brings together the wealth of data and evidence on employability policies to better prepare youth for the labour market. And the just-published Education Indicators in Focus brief discusses how vocational education and training (VET) programmes in upper secondary education can help to improve employability.

On average across the OECD and G20 countries with available data, some 41% of all upper secondary education students are enrolled in a VET programme, but the variation among countries ranges from more to 70% in 4 countries to less than 20% in 8 countries. In many countries, VET programmes are still a marginal phenomenon in a predominantly academically oriented upper secondary education system. And even in countries with well-established vocational tracks, VET programmes still suffer from a lack of recognition and respect from policy makers, parents and the general public. Yet, high-quality VET programmes tend to be effective in developing skills among those who would otherwise lack qualifications to ensure a smooth and successful transition into the labour market.

Across OECD countries for which data are available, 78% of 25-34 year-olds with a vocational upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary qualification are employed – a rate that is 11 percentage points higher than that among individuals with a general upper secondary education as their highest qualification (see chart above). And the difference in employment rates are marked in systems with well-developed vocational education systems, such as Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. As the brief notes, the best indicator of the strength of upper secondary vocational education is the presence of a work-based learning component. It is no coincidence that the employment benefit of upper secondary vocational education programmes is relatively higher in those countries with strong apprenticeship or other work-based learning components integrated into them.

Sure, academic tracks in upper secondary education are primarily oriented to preparing students for tertiary education. But these data clearly show that for those students who are not pursuing tertiary education, academic tracks do not prepare these youth for entry into the labour market as well as vocational programmes do. Drop-outs, early school leavers and students who fail to obtain a qualification are the most vulnerable in making the transition to work; but students who leave education with an academic upper secondary education as their highest level of education also suffer when an economic recession makes the transition from school to work even more difficult. Preparing young people well for the job market, either through high-quality vocational programmes in upper secondary or post-secondary education or by ensuring successful entry into tertiary education, is probably the most important mission of education systems today.


Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 33, by Diogo Amaro de Paula,  Éric Charbonnier and Margarita Kalamova 
Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 33, French version
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators:
Chart Source: OECD (2015), Education at a Glance database.

Leave a Reply