Vocational education's global gap

Training Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Bright sparks: Investing in vocational skills would deliver a substantial return, says report

The topic of "vocational education" often has a recurrent theme.

Everyone says it's a good thing and it's vital for the economy. But - and there is always a but, it's still the academic pathway that has the higher status.

As the saying goes, vocational education is a great thing… for other people's children.

Another side of this conundrum is that there is more need for vocational education than ever before.

Youth unemployment, particularly among those without training or qualifications, is a scourge in many countries. But at the same time employers are warning about skills shortages and not being able to find the right staff.

And a major report commissioned by the City and Guilds group, which provides vocational qualifications, shows how this "mismatch" is an international problem.

Image caption Source: Unesco

"Globally, the stigma of vocational education often reduces it to a second choice to academia," concludes the study, carried out by the Centre for Business and Economics Research.

India's skills gap

The expansion in university numbers - in developed and developing countries - has been a global phenomenon.

India is forecast to become the world's biggest producer of graduates - even overtaking China.

More stories from the BBC's Knowledge economy series looking at education from a global perspective and how to get in touch

But the report highlights that the real challenge for India's economic ambitions is the shortfall in vocational skills.

India's rising population will see its labour force growing by 32% in the next two decades - with tens of millions more young people needing to find jobs.

But at present only 2.3% of the workforce have had formal skills training, compared with 80% in Germany.

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Image caption India is producing record numbers of graduates but its economy needs more vocational training

The report argues that India will not be able to sustain its economic growth without better incentives for vocational education.

As employment switches from agriculture to sectors such as construction and the motor industry, there will be a need for millions more trained workers.

The report highlights some of the attitudes that might stand in the way, such as the "mindset" of Indian parents who focus on getting their children into university and who associate vocational skills with lower status jobs.

Apprentices... you're hired

In the United States, last month saw the first National Apprenticeship Week, aimed at raising the profile of vocational training.

But the report shows that it's an uphill battle. There are currently 410,000 apprentices in the US - less than half the number in the UK.

Despite research showing a shortage of five million staff with technical skills, the study says that there is still a strong bias in the US system towards academic subjects.

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Image caption Factories in Linz: Austria has high levels of young people in vocational training

Policymakers, teachers and careers advisers are accused of seeing "success" only in terms of getting more young people into university, despite concerns about the level of student debt.

Implementing change in the US vocational education system is even harder when it's such a fragmented system. The accreditation of trades can be at state, regional or city level, with qualifications not necessarily recognised in other parts of the country.

The research calls for a "robust, high-quality alternative to the traditional college path".

Youth unemployment

In South Africa, qualifications, whether academic or vocational, are seen as a major advantage in the labour market.

This is a country with a 54% youth unemployment rate - and at the same time a survey of the country's business leaders found high levels of concern about a lack of skilled workers.

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Image caption A rural family in South Africa, a country facing high levels of youth unemployment

As well as the individual and economic waste, such a high level of youth unemployment is seen as threatening "social disruption".

There are ambitions in South Africa to expand both university and vocational training. There is a plan to have 2.5 million places in vocational colleges in the next 20 years, a fourfold increase.

If this can be delivered there will be a strong return on the investment, says the study.

But there is a warning of the risk of a mismatch between what people are studying and the needs of employers.

For instance, it says there is a surplus of trainees in sales, communications and auditing, when the real shortage is for electricians and other technical skills.

Status and 'stigma'

In the UK, the study says there has been progress in improving the recognition of vocational education and getting rid of some qualifications with little value to employers.

Image caption Source: Eurostat

There is a target for three million apprentices and the report argues that investing in vocational skills will yield a substantial long-term benefit to the UK economy, cutting unemployment and boosting productivity.

But it also warns of a training system that remains over-complex, compared with the path from school to university.

And for the upper secondary age group, few young people in the UK are learning vocational subjects by international standards.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A training scheme for refugees at BMW in Munich, Germany

The report also highlights the residual barriers, quoting people who say there is a "negative perception" that vocational courses are for those who could not succeed in academic subjects.

Or more brutally "people think we're really thick because we're doing beauty therapy".

Austria is at the top of the league in Europe for young people enrolled in vocational training.

And the study suggests this could be a key to cutting youth unemployment.

Countries such as Austria and Germany, with relatively high levels of engagement in vocational learning, have among the lowest rates of unemployment in the under-25s.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Employers warn of skills shortages, while there are also worries about youth unemployment

The research argues that similar levels of vocational training in the UK would lead to a reduction in youth unemployment.

Chris Jones, chief executive, City and Guilds Group, said the report shows the need to stop "outdated prejudices".

"Across the world, governments and businesses are waking up to the importance of work-relevant, vocational education. Yet there is this persistent stigma against vocational education.

"Yet, to be competitive in the future, governments need to think about their education strategies in the context of the bigger picture.

"They need to think about where their economies are heading, and who they'll need to help them get there and critically how to match their future needs with their current supply of labour."