This article is part of a series on the future of vocational education and training, exploring issues within the sector and how to improve the decline in enrolments and shortages of qualified people in vocational jobs. Read the other articles in the series here.
The low status of vocational education and training (VET) is a growing problem. Many young Australians and their parents don’t consider VET as a potential post-school pathway, even if it might be more suitable for them than university.
In an era of high aspiration, VET is often seen as an option only for those unable to gain university entry. This undermines VET as a viable and effective post-school pathway – the one most frequently trod by young people in countries such as Britain, Germany and Switzerland.
It’s also fuelling a growing mismatch between the skills young people are leaving tertiary education with and employment opportunities in their preferred jobs. It can also lead to increasingly lengthy, costly and roundabout post-school pathways to employment for young people.
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But much of the low status of VET compared to university is shaped by negative societal perceptions of the jobs it trains people for. This is particularly true for those seen as dead-end (such as dental assistants), those requiring manual work, involve getting dirty (such as mechanics) or seen to be servile (such as waitressing). Changing those views is necessary to address the low status of VET and present it as a good option for school-leavers and their parents to consider.
The status of vocational education
Young people and their parents are faced with difficult decision-making when considering post-school educational pathways. Most vocational and university programs have specific occupational focuses. So, decisions about these pathways have to focus on the jobs young people and their parents aspire to be in.
Unsurprisingly, jobs seen to be personally interesting, socially-desirable, clean, well-paid and offering stable employment are the most attractive. These include law, speech pathology and journalism.
A university education is the usual pathway to this kind of work. This is despite jobs in these industries becoming increasingly scarce due to an oversupply of students now being prepared for these types of jobs.
Australia is far from alone here. Long-standing societal sentiments about occupations, exacerbated currently by growing aspirations among young people and parents is a common concern globally. This is the case not only in countries with advanced industrial economies, but also those with developing economies – for instance Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.
Societal investment in funding
When perceived to be low standing, societal investment (such as those from governments) in VET dwindles, as has long been the case in Australia. This perpetuates a cycle of under-funding and marketisation policies that reinforces its unattractiveness to young people, and further reduces societal investment.
As a consequence, VET is not being optimised as a post-school pathway to meet the needs of young Australians, the national economy, the viability of Australian businesses or the community. The risk for young people is they will spend their time and money on an educational pathway that may fail to secure them the kinds of jobs they aspire to, and limit their employment options.
So, the recent introduction in Victoria of subsided VET programs for certain occupations is a positive example of societal investment in VET. But this initiative needs to progress alongside measures that promote these occupations as being worthwhile and worthy for young people.
What needs to happen?
Measures are now being put forward by governments to address this problem. These include having higher level vocational education programs, including degree-level apprenticeships, and changing the name of vocational education institutions to make them more attractive. All of these are worth considering, but these measures risk being short-term fixes.
Not long ago, vocational education institutions change their name from “colleges” to “institutes” to make them more attractive, particularly to overseas students. Equally, requiring high levels of certification has not necessarily enhanced the status of occupations – such as travel agents.
In countries such as Germany, technical and trade occupations are held in higher esteem. There, it’s common to find young people who have university entrance but prefer to engage in apprenticeships.
Australia needs high quality technical, trade and service workers whose skills develop through effective occupational preparation. But these outcomes are most likely to be realised when jobs are valued by society. Education needs to acknowledge and addresses the complexities of the jobs and have educational goals that help students graduate with the necessary skills.
Ultimately, addressing societal views of jobs such as plumbers, electricians or concreters cannot be realised through the education system alone. Public perceptions need to change, including those of parents and teachers.
This can be done through informing the public about them, being open about what this work requires of the worker and what they need to know to be competent in them. Government should lead the charge in this effort, and industry should support and sponsor.
Three actions are required
Firstly, a public education campaign needs to be undertaken to inform the community (particularly parents) about VET as a viable post-school option. It should be supported by industry and enacted by government, through public education and social marketing via electronic media.
Secondly, schools should better inform young people about VET as a post-school option and include entrance into VET as an important performance indicator. Schools should take action such as organising visits to schools by young people championing the work in VET fields.
Thirdly, federal and state government along with industry need to ensure the VET provision is organised, ordered and resourced in ways that provides students with the appropriate educational experiences to prepare them for the job they choose.
Stephen Billett is Professor of Adult and Vocational Education at Griffith University. He receives funding from UNESCO, Australian Research Council, Queensland state government, Singapore government, Norwegian Research Council, Office of Teaching and Learning (Australian Federal Government). He is also affiliated with Gold Coast University Hospital.