The Problem With Vocational Education






Traditional degrees will not fill skills gap, says CBI


A fairly standard news story came round again early this week. Someone or other, in this case the CBI, complaining about a skill shortage of some sort or other. What is often proposed is a more vocational route towards gaining skills. Not everyone could/ should go to university so we need non-university routes that lead to people picking up these skills. The CBI have said it and Vince Cable have backed them.

My concern with this is that it often creates an education that is narrower than university. Vocational education tends to allow people to move forward but getting them to focus on less and progress their careers quicker towards specialism. So while students often leave university with a wide range of careers open to them (especially in more “traditional” university subjects) students who embark on an apprenticeship or a BTECH often start specialising fairly radically at age 16.

My concern about this is that the employer gets what they want, someone with a set of skills, while the learner is a lot less equipped to navigate their career over the long term. This is because of a concept I like to think of as someone’s “Fallback Position.” A Fallback Position describes the point in someone’s career progression someone retreats to when the demand for the technical skills they have deteriorates or disappears from the economy. Foe example as a careers adviser I have a series of technical skills around delivering careers guidance/ education. Currently these are in relatively high demand in the economy (though arguably less than they were 3-4 years ago) but suppose this demand were to decrease. As someone with two degrees in History and a post-grad in Careers Guidance I have a range of transferable skills around communicating, researching, understanding information, report writing and one-to-one work among others that are sort after in a range of professions. Now compare this to someone who has trained to become an electrician. If the demand for their technical skills disappears the transferable skills they have developed in their training are a lot less, this is often further compounded if the have been training to be an electrician since they did their GCSE’s and they chose a vocational route because of poor GCSE’s results.

My point here is that vocational education often builds less transferable skills into their courses than “traditional” education and so leaves people more fragile. Employers may benefit from getting more skills in the short term but individuals and the economy as a whole suffers through workers being more susceptible to  economic change.

Does this mean that we should write off vocational education off as a second choice to HE? Well no, we need the professions that vocational education often leads to and they are every bit as valid and fulfilling as any other for the right individual. But we do need to make sure that vocational education builds rounded individuals and educates for life rather than just training for a profession. Breadth keeps the learner central and doesn’t just supply what industry currently wants. Secondly I think it does point to the need for a well resourced and free to all National Careers Service. If some people are more at danger to economic down turn that it seems like in the public good to support them, kind of like a NHS for our career needs. One that genuinely has the resources to help people through their entire career. I fear that the current National Careers Service gets nowhere near this.


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