Under the radar? Professional education and training

by Simon Field
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Percentage of adults aged 20 – 45 who have short cycle professional education and training as their highest qualification
In centrally planned economies in the former Soviet bloc, apartments and housing came in rigid standard sizes – there was little choice. The same was true of cars. So households had little choice, and provision was dominated by the supply-side. 
We are quick to see the inefficiencies in those arrangements, we who have become so used to the idea of choice over everything. But oddly enough, education systems sometimes operate a bit like a centrally planned economy.  The most visible post-compulsory qualifications, come in standard sizes: two to four years of upper secondary education, and three to four years for a bachelors programme. Often this sequence is seen as the ‘royal road’ for a young person.
But out there in the labour market, modern economies are generating demands for skills that are every bit as diverse as our varying needs for housing or road transport. These demands come in chunks of different sizes, and quite often in the shape of demand for qualifications beyond school, but involving less time than a full three to four year bachelor’s degree.  For example, a recent review of the United States concluded that in the decade to 2018, nearly one third of job vacancies will require a post-secondary qualification of some sort, but less than a four year degree.
So how are countries responding? Are they widening choice in response to demand, or, as in a centrally planned economy offering no more than a rigid and limited set of options? A new OECD report on Skills beyond School, based on 20 individual country studies, sheds light on this. 
Some countries have responded well. In the United States, around 12% of the labour force has a post-secondary certificate – typically a short vocational programme – and certificate graduation rates have tripled in recent years; a further 10% have associate degrees. In Austria, around 20% of the cohort graduate with a post-secondary qualification from a vocational college. In France more than one third of a million students are enrolled in two-year professional programmes. But in some other countries the response is weaker (see chart above).

Much of this activity is under the radar – it simply doesn’t get noticed in the way that university programmes do.With that in mind, the Skills beyond School Synthesis Report proposes a common international name for the sector – “professional education and training” – following the Swiss example. This would include all vocational post-secondary programmes requiring more than six months full-time learning (or the equivalent).

Of course these programmes are not without their challenges, and choice does not guarantee quality. Professional training sometimes needs to raise its game. Teachers and trainers need more up-to-date industry experience; qualifications need to be developed with the social partners nationally, and allow local flexibility to adapt to local labour market requirements; transition to higher education should be made easier; the needs of adults for flexible and part-time study need to be accommodated; recognition of prior learning, including informal workbased learning, also needs to be built in.

But there is also one topic that stands out. This report argues that work-based learning should be made a mandatory element of programmes, allowing employers not only to provide training, but also to strongly influence the mix and content of training provision.  As an aside, work-based learning is such a critical part of vocational programmes that a whole new OECD project will be devoted to this topic in 2015-16.

Full set of OECD Reviews of Post-Secondary Vocational Education and Training: http://www.oecd.org/edu/skills-beyond-school/skillsbeyondschool.htm
For more on OECD work on skills go to: http://skills.oecd.org/ 
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Image credit: ©OECD

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