By Glenda Quintini and Marieke Vandeweyer
Vocational Education and Training can be a useful pathway into jobs for young people. Young people who graduate from upper-secondary VET experience smoother school-to-work transitions than those who leave school with general degrees at the same education level. International good practices provide directions on how to prolong the benefits of this good start.
Vocational Education and Training (VET) can be a useful pathway into jobs for young people. Across OECD countries, young people who graduate from upper-secondary VET have better employment outcomes at the start of their career than those who leave school with general degrees at the same education level. They also hold better quality jobs, in terms of wages and job stability. In addition, while automation and other structural factors are threatening some occupations that are important for VET graduates, like crafts and related trades occupations, a significant number of job openings can still be expected to replace workers who leave these occupations (e.g. due to retirement). VET graduates have a strong comparative advantage in these jobs and, so far, this has given them some protection against structural changes.
VET plays a prominent role in education systems in OECD countries. On average, almost a third of 15-34 year-olds hold an upper-secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary VET qualification as their highest qualification. These young VET graduates have higher employment rates and lower unemployment rates than non-tertiary general education graduates on average, and these differences have remained stable over the past 15 years. At the start of their careers, VET graduates also enjoy better job quality than general education graduates. Median wages of young VET graduates are slightly higher than those of non-tertiary general education graduates and they are more likely to have a permanent contract and to have supervisory responsibilities in their job. However, these advantages tend to disappear for older age groups in most countries, suggesting that VET does particularly well in facilitating rapid and successful school-to-work transitions even if this does not translate into a permanent improvement in labour market outcomes over careers.
One key strength of VET pathways, compared to general education, is that they often involve a work placement. The workplace is a powerful learning environment where technical skills can be learnt from expert practitioners using real-life equipment. In a real work context, young people can also acquire key soft skills such as teamwork, communication and self-organisation. It also puts young people in direct contact with prospective employers or expands their network of employment contacts. As a result, work experience can ease transitions from school to work. It also benefits employers by offering a means of testing new candidates for recruitment.
Despite these generally good prospects for mid-level VET graduates, the outcomes vary strongly between countries, reflecting differences in the way VET systems are organised. In some countries, VET courses are primarily school-based and developed with limited involvement of employers, undermining VET’s ability to prepare students for the labour market. This affects the image of VET education and makes VET less attractive to students and parents. Focusing on good practice in VET provision provides some insights into the specific features of VET systems that foster positive labour market outcomes.
Countries with a strong work-based component in their VET system tend to see very positive outcomes. For instance, in Germany and Switzerland – where work-based learning plays a big role in VET – the employment rates of VET graduates are substantially higher than those of their general education peers and almost at the same level as those of tertiary education graduates. Moreover, the strong cooperation between the VET system and the world of work for the delivery and design of VET ensures that in those countries VET programmes are aligned with labour market needs. This is reflected in the fact that in Germany and Switzerland about a third of young VET graduates hold high-skilled jobs – which are in high demand-, compared to just 20% on average.
Overall, better quality VET systems that open up good prospects in the labour market make VET more attractive to young people and their parents making it a valuable alternative to a more academic education.
Strengthening the positive impact that VET can have on education and labour market outcomes for young people in a changing world of work will depend on the following key conditions:
- A strong co-operation between VET systems and the world of work is essential to ensure that graduates enter the labour market with skills that correspond to labour market needs.
- The expansion of VET into non-traditional fields of study, including at higher education levels, linked to growing occupations and sectors will help VET graduates access sustainable job opportunities.
- The development of strong foundation skills in VET programmes to ensure that graduates can adapt to change.
Musset, P. (2019), “Improving work-based learning in schools”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 233, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/918caba5-en.
OECD (2020), “Smooth transitions but in a changing market: The prospects of vocational education and training graduates”, in OECD Employment Outlook 2020: Worker Security and the COVID-19 Crisis, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/1686c758-en.