Helping Ukrainian refugees benefit from vocational education and training

By Anthony Mann

Senior Policy Analyst, Directorate of Education and Skills

and Shinyoung Jeon

Analyst, Centre for Skills

Key points:

– Building on the strong VET system in Ukraine, it is crucial that VET provision is sustained for Ukrainian refugees to support not only for when they return to Ukraine but also for host economies
– There are challenges for refugees to be well-informed about, to get ready for, get into and get on with VET
– We suggest policy recommendations to respond to the VET needs for Ukrainian youth from our previous experiences with refugee crises

At the time of writing, it is 137 days since the Russia’s large-scale aggression against Ukraine. The invasion has generated many questions that are difficult to answer. No one knows how long the war will last, how it will conclude or what the long-lasting consequences will be for Ukraine’s economy and people.

One thing is certain, though, the rebuilding of Ukraine will depend on the practical skills of millions of people in areas such as construction, industrial production, transportation, agriculture, and health and social care. In our education systems, many of these skills are developed within programmes of vocational education and training (VET).

Fortunately, Ukraine’s education system has a strong VET tradition. Whereas in some countries, VET is an unattractive study option, the results from the PISA 2018 study shows that around 15% of Ukrainian teenagers expect to be working in skilled employment (jobs in the International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO) major groups 6, 7 and 8, which are typically entered through VET programmes) by the time they are aged 30. This is a level of interest comparable to that found in Germany and Switzerland, world leaders in effective VET provision.

Importantly, VET in Ukraine is not something that is solely of interest to boys: 5% of girls expect to work in a skilled profession, one of the highest levels of interest found across the 79 countries and economic areas that participated in PISA 2018. In early 2022, one student in three enrolled in upper secondary education in Ukraine was following a VET programme.

The war has brought upheaval to the VET community in Ukraine. More than half of VET schools, students and teachers in the regions under attack as of March 2022 have been directly affected. As of May 2022, one in eight schools had been damaged or destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of students and teachers have been displaced, with many joining the millions of Ukrainians who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

With practical training so important for VET education, it is more difficult for VET programmes to be taught online.  In-person VET classes are required to continue to build valuable skills. Thus, questions arise related to the desirability and feasibility of host countries adapting their VET programmes to respond to the needs of Ukrainian refugees.

When refugees return to Ukraine, it will certainly be desirable that they do so having developed valuable skills to contribute to the rebuilding of their country. However, if they do stay in exile longer term, it becomes imperative that they are able to contribute productively to their host countries – and this is where VET is so valuable. Across a wide range of countries, graduates from upper secondary VET have better labour market outcomes compared to peers with academic upper secondary qualifications – and this holds true for both native-born and foreign-born youth.

While it desirable that refugees have the opportunity to develop skills through VET, it is not always easily achieved. During 2018, the OECD visited Germany, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland to hear about their VET experiences during the 2015 refugee crisis. One of the lessons was that it cannot be taken for granted that refugee learners will engage with, and then succeed in, VET programmes.

The OECD team also found was that while refugees face common and predictable barriers stopping them from benefiting from VET, relatively small adjustments to systems can make them more inclusive, while maintaining the high standards demanded by employers.

There are four primary challenges for young refugees and their families on their VET journeys: getting informed about the VET offer, getting ready to be able to enter upper secondary programmes, getting into work-based opportunities (especially apprenticeships) and getting on within them, that is, successfully completing programmes.

This new policy brief, which is the result of collaboration between the Directorate of Education and Skills, the Centre for Skills and the Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Policy at the OECD, sets out ways in which VET systems have responded to these challenges since the middle of the last decade.

It also outlines approaches that have increased the accessibility of VET to refugees, including:

  • the development of online and in-person career guidance in languages used by refugees, and counselling approaches that recognise the traumatic experiences many refugees will have faced;
  • the development of programmes designed to prepare students with the language, academic and practical skills required for entry to upper secondary VET provision, including periods of work-based learning designed to help students become more fully familiar with VET provision, practice their developing skills in real workplaces and learn how their studies relate to the demands of the labour market;
  • the introduction of flexible upper secondary programmes that allows either shorter or longer durations than is usual, depending on the students’ needs, recognising that students facing additional barriers can be expected to take longer than is typical to develop the productive capacity that makes an apprenticeship attractive to an employer; and
  • programmes of continued support designed to help apprentices complete their programmes, providing targeted help on language skills, learning difficulties or psychological problems.

Many of these increase the inclusiveness of VET for all learners facing additional barriers (not just refugees), while maintaining the high standards that employers expect of VET systems. As the Ukrainian refugee crisis continues now into its fifth month, it is timely to look to the past for practical lessons on how VET systems can bring hope and direction at a time of immense and traumatic upheaval.

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