How are young VET graduates faring in the digital transformation?

By Annelore Verhagen

Today is the kick-off for the fifth edition of European Vocational Skills Week : an annual event where local, regional or national organisations showcase the very best of vocational education and training (VET). This year’s theme is VET for Green and Digital Transitions.

According to the recent OECD working paper “The Changing Labour Market for graduates from medium-level Vocational Education and Training”, one of the main benefits of VET is that it prepares students directly for the labour market, thus contributing to a smooth transition from school to work. On average across EU countries, young graduates (15 to 35 years old) from upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary VET have better labour market outcomes in a number of dimensions than graduates from general programmes at the same education level. They have higher employment rates and lower unemployment rates. They also have slightly higher wages even when they work in similar occupations and industries. Moreover, young non-tertiary VET graduates are less likely to report being ill prepared for their job, and are more likely to work in occupations that match their education level. This shows that VET supports students in developing the skills sought by employers.

However, digital transitions may be eroding the advantage of holding a VET qualification. Technological progress facilitates the automation of certain tasks in the workplace and is likely to increase the frequency of job transitions (OECD Employment Outlook, 2020). As VET often prepares students for a fairly narrow set of jobs, many of which are relatively strongly exposed to automation, graduates of these programmes could be particularly affected by digital transitions if VET systems do not adapt. On average, around 21% of young non-tertiary VET and general education graduates work in highly automatable jobs. This is significantly lower than among young adults without an upper-secondary qualification (28%), but much higher than among young tertiary education graduates (9%).

Moreover, the probability of automation differs strongly across occupations, and therefore not all jobs held by VET graduates have the same exposure to automation. Some occupations, such as Assemblers, Drivers and Mobile Plant Operators and Metal, machinery and related trades workers, where more than 40% of workers aged 15 to 35 have a non-tertiary VET degree across OECD countries, have a relatively high risk of automation. On the other hand, the risk of job automation is relatively low for occupations such as Legal, social, cultural and related associate professionals and Science and engineering associate professionals: high-skilled occupations where the share of workers aged 15 to 35 with a non-tertiary VET degree is relatively high (around 30%). The risk of automation is also low in health and personal care occupations, which are important occupations for VET graduates.

Digitalisation is likely to bring about rapid changes in skill demand and increase labour market dynamism and job changes, putting greater pressure on the adaptability and resilience of VET graduates. This may require some changes in the content of existing VET programmes, in the development of new VET programmes, and in VET graduates’ participation in education and training later in life. In order to maintain good school-to-work transitions, it is important to prepare VET students for jobs that are in high demand and less likely to disappear due to automation, such as jobs in advanced manufacturing and the health care sector. This requires high-quality career guidance for both students and adults throughout their work careers, and in some cases opening-up new VET programmes – possibly at the tertiary education level. Moreover, VET graduates need to leave the education system with solid foundational skills, including skills to use digital tools. This will help them access further education and training that may be needed to adapt to changes within their occupation or to retrain towards other occupations.

In summary, certain aspects of VET systems might need to be re-engineered to maintain and further strengthen the positive impact VET can have on early labour market outcomes. This will require:

  • A strong co-operation between the VET system 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 and at higher education levels, linked to growing occupations and sectors will help VET graduates access sustainable job opportunities and reduce gender divides.
  • The development of strong foundation skills in VET programmes and ample opportunities to up-skill and re-skill will ensure that graduates can adapt to change.
  • Helping students and adults make informed education, training and career choices will further improve VET graduates’ labour market outcomes by better aligning supply and demand.

The European Vocational Skills Week 2020 is organised by the European Commission in cooperation with the German Presidency of the Council of the European Union. It is held between 9 and 13 November 2020, and since this years’ edition is 100% online, anyone, anywhere can join in the activities, which include a series of virtual conferences, workshops, and associated events on topics essential to the discussion about VET, lifelong learning, skills and labour market developments.

Vandeweyer, M. & Verhagen, A. (2020). The changing labour market for graduates from medium-level vocational education and training. OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers No. 244,

OECD (2020), OECD Employment Outlook 2020: Worker Security and the COVID-19 Crisis, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Nedelkoska, L. & Quintini, G. (2018). Automation, skills use and training. OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers No. 202,

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