It’s a small world: The global push to reframe VET careers

The challenges faced in selling vocational education and training (VET) careers in competition with higher education many be very real in Australia, but it’s important to remember we aren’t alone.

Have you read the latest headlines on the vocational education and training industry? Really? If so, you should be able to recognise who gave the following quote on 23 September 2019:

“There has always been a perception out there around university being a better career path for young people than what apprenticeships are, but the fact of the matter is these people come out highly qualified and competent and having their skills recognised at the appropriate levels means that they are appropriately recognised alongside university graduates, not as a plan B.”

Did you pick it? How about this one from 30 September 2019:

“When we have implemented all the reforms in this sector [VET]… people may see this route in higher demand than a conventional university route. That’s what you’ve seen in Singapore and we should have the same level of ambition in this country. I’m seeing evidence when I speak to young people, they are switching on to the fact that there are different options just as attractive as university.”

From the headline of this article, you may have realised there’s a ‘reveal’ coming. While these quotes could very well have been given by policymakers or pundits in Australia, they weren’t. The first was given by the chief executive of an industry training organisation – Competenz – in New Zealand, Fiona Kingsford. The second? Gavin Williamson, the current education secretary in the UK.

What does this tell us about vocational education and training in Australia? We aren’t alone.

A shared cultural challenge

The VET sector is experiencing similar challenges around the world when it comes to competing with universities for students coming through schools into the world of tertiary education and training. With a university education having for some time been culturally linked – particularly in developed countries – with prestige and better potential careers and future opportunities, it has been a challenge for VET to encourage participation from students in technical careers, where pathways may not have attracted the same levels of status or perceived income earning potential.

This is by no means limited to the UK and New Zealand. In the US, this article from The Atlantic details how The Stigma of Choosing Trade School Over College is alive and well in the US. It begins with the story of Toren Reesman, who went against the wishes of his family by dropping out of college into a custom woodworking career after realising it interested him more (his father came to respect his son’s choice). Another mother, Erin Funk, says her son’s decision to pursue a video-production-design program in Ohio led to social perceptions he was ‘having problems at school’.

States of change

While cultural attitudes towards VET may be similar across developed jurisdictions they also share two other similarities. They are out of date and they are changing. They are out of date because they are out of step with the realities we know are facing students, apprentices, and trainees in the future of work. They are changing because governments and communities are starting to understand the new lifelong learning reality means knowledge and practical skills will need to be delivered in ways that continually augment employability, meaning VET is likely to play a more central role.

·      New Zealand

New Zealand’s Qualifications Authority, for example, which scores all courses across the country on a scale of 1-10 – from foundational VET to university PhDs – is currently in the process of being reviewed. Stakeholders (including Fiona Kingsford who was quoted above) believe that some trade certificate courses, which are at the moment scored almost uniformly as a ‘4’, should be pushed up into the realm of a ‘6’ or a ‘7’ alongside some higher education courses. It is believed this would better reflect both the difficulty and skills required to become qualified in certain trades.

·      United Kingdom

In the UK, education secretary Gavin Williamson announced the creation of six specialist institutes of technology across the UK with the injection of £120m in funding, an initiative he said would combat the sector’s image as a ‘poor relation’ to higher education and deliver a national training system that ‘matched that of Germany’, the envy of much of Europe. In a promising move for the sector, Williamson also brought the technical and vocational education responsibilities into his portfolio, rather than keeping them separate – a move many Australians would no doubt appreciate.

·      United States

In the US, there are also many examples of quality vocational education and training initiatives moving to the fore of public consciousness. In How Vocational Education Got a 21st Century RebootPolitico Magazine details the creation of a P-TECH program that prepares students in years 9-12 at school for quality jobs by combining school education with internships and tuition-free community college. It details the story of Suriana Rodriguez, who has already lined up a full-time job with IBM at the tender age of 19 thanks to a school-based internship as an apprentice test technician.

A positive perception for VET

There is no doubt the future will see more respect and appreciation for the role of VET-based education and training both in Australia and around the world. The outcomes of the Joyce Review – which has been accepted in full by the Morrison Government –aims to “deliver a stronger skills sector which is a positive choice for many more Australians, whether they are starting their working lives or need new skills to advance their career.” If the global push to reframe VET careers is any indication, it is a very small world and that move to ‘positive choice’ is indeed coming.