By Giovanni Maria Semeraro
Statistician, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
Vocational education has not always had the best reputation. Vocational programmes are often technical in nature, and their graduates typically expect lower incomes relative to those who complete general or academic tracks. As a result, vocational education is generally perceived as a track for low-achieving students, or an alternative for those who drop out.
But this reputation is not entirely deserved. In our latest Education Indicators in Focus brief, we examine the characteristics of vocational education and training programmes in modern education systems, and unmask some of the myths surrounding them.
To start with, vocational education may be more attractive than we think. As the following figure makes clear, many countries across the OECD have developed strong and robust vocational education systems. In 2016, almost half (44%) of upper secondary students across all OECD countries were enrolled in vocational tracks. In Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, the Netherlands, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia, that figure was around 70%.
It is true that lower-performing students tend to enter vocational programmes at the upper secondary level. PISA data show that enrolment in vocational tracks is strongly associated with poor student performance; on average across OECD countries, the share of low performers in vocational programmes is twice as large as in general tracks. Low performance can make students feel disengaged from school, and more likely to drop out. Students in upper secondary vocational tracks are also less likely to complete their programme than those enrolled in general programmes, which carries obvious consequences for them in the labour market.
But vocational education and training systems attract a diverse range of other students, as well. Although some vocational students are indeed at risk of dropping out of school, others are simply seeking technical skills for labour market entry. Vocational students also include adults who wish to increase their employability by further developing their skills, as well as students who might later seek entry into higher education. A common characteristic of these programmes is their central role in preparing young people for work and responding to labour market needs. Because of this, vocational programmes are fairly resilient to economic downturns. During the 2008 recession, vocational education and training effectively addressed youth unemployment in countries like Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
Strong vocational systems are based on strong career guidance, links with the labour market and flexible curricula.
Today, a growing number of countries recognise the value of strong vocational education systems as a way to prepare students for direct entry into specific occupations, and are investigating measures to increase their relevance and attractiveness to students. Strong vocational systems provide students with career guidance and the opportunity to make a smooth transition to the labour market, or to pursue higher-level vocational and academic qualifications. They provide flexible curricula that enable transfers between general and vocational education and address initial, continuous and tertiary education.
Among vocational education and training programmes, combined school- and work-based programmes have several advantages. Learners receive an education that combines practical and theoretical learning, while firms receive access to a workforce that is tailored to their needs and already familiar with firm-specific procedures. Strong ties with employers and trade unions can help ensure that the vocational education system is connected with labour market needs and demands; and there is strong potential to develop these types of programmes even further. On average across OECD countries, only 11% of upper secondary students (or one in four vocational students) are enrolled in combined school- and work-based programmes.
High-quality vocational education and training can clearly make a major contribution to modern economies and labour markets. As jobs either disappear or transform with time, vocational education and training can ensure that workers develop the skills that labour markets need.