Academic Literature

Vocational vs General Education – Each country should aim to find the right balance

Vocational skills are job-specific skills that prepare for work in specific occupations. By contrast, the usage of general skills transcends specific occupations. In dynamically changing economies, this difference implies a basic trade-off between vocational and general education programs for labor-market experiences over the life-cycle.

Vocational education programs have the advantage of helping young people master the transition from school to work because job-specific skills directly prepare students for the tasks demanded by firms. As a consequence, they may result in reduced youth unemployment.

But there is another side to the same coin: Job-specific skills will be subject to increasing risk of becoming obsolete when the structure of occupations changes. In addition, if the acquired general skill base is limited, vocationally educated people may find it hard to learn different job-specific skills. By contrast, the skills generated by general education programs may provide workers with greater adaptability to changing environments. As a consequence, they may result in higher employment opportunities at older ages.

An increasing body of empirical evidence confirms this basic trade-off between vocational and general education programs over the life-cycle. While vocationally educated individuals initially have better employment opportunities than generally educated individuals, this pattern turns around at older ages. Results are particularly strong in countries that have extensive apprenticeship systems. The trade-off between education types over the life-cycle is also visible in earnings and in participation in adult career-related education.

The consistent evidence on a life-cycle trade-off of focusing education programs on job- specific skills provides the basis for policy implications about how education systems can prepare students for lifetime work. At the most basic level, the findings indicate that in dynamic economies, policy needs to consider the full working life-cycle, which also implies that they must convey the ability to adapt to changing economic conditions.

Each country should aim to find the right balance between conveying general and work- specific skills to its population. Successful apprenticeship systems require institutional and regulatory frameworks defining the tasks of stakeholders, financial structures, and certification requirements. To make graduates fit for employment over their full life-cycles, apprenticeship programs could reduce the early specialization of apprentices by lowering the number of specific apprenticeships, expanding the share of general educational content, and modularizing apprenticeship components. General education programs could implement measures to relate the conveyed skills to tasks that are relevant in the real world as currently demanded on the labor market. Finally, countries should establish strong systems of lifelong learning.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Effects of vocational and general education for labor-market outcomes over the life-cycle


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