Academic Literature

Vocational vs General Education in Apprenticeship – The life-cycle trade-off

This paper discusses the role of vocational education, and in particular apprenticeship education, in preparing students for the labor market, with a particular focus on a life-cycle perspective in changing economies. The basic idea is that vocational education may facilitate entry into the labor market but hurt em­ployment opportunities later in life because of limited adaptability to changing economic environments. We summarize evidence on the changing effects of vocational education over the life cycle from the international adult achievement tests IALS and PIAAC and country-specific evidence. We then discuss policy implications for elements of future-oriented education systems, especially apprenticeship programs.

Some general policy implications

At the most basic level, the findings indicate that in dynamic economies, policy needs to consider the full working life-cycle. They raise caution about policies that focus just on the current employment situation and ignore the dynamics of grow- ing economies. Focusing just on the labor-market entry phase and youth unem- ployment is too narrow, as it ignores important countervailing effects later in life.

The crucial point is that no-one knows which specific skills will be demanded in the economy in, say, 30 years from now. The only thing that we can be sure of is that the economy will look very different from today’s due to continuous technological and structural change. But today’s secondary-school graduates will not even be 50 years old at that time, and they will want to strive on the labor market for at least another 15 years. This requires a strong educational foundation that provides workers with the ability to adapt as demands change.
As a consequence, neither vocational education nor general education are uniformly good or bad. There are pros and cons of both types of education programs. An advantage of the focus of vocational education programs on job-specific skills is that it may facilitate the transition from school to work. But focusing on job-specific skills also entails the risk of reducing the adaptability of workers to changing economic conditions. By contrast, general education programs may make it harder for graduates to find their way into the labor market, but foster their capability to adapt to change later in life. This insight implicates a number of further conclusions for the design of future-oriented education systems.

An important aspect for the long-term employability of vocationally educat- ed workers is a strong focus on lifelong learning. Considering the specificity of the skills obtained during an apprenticeship, graduates of vocational programs are in particular need to retrain when the economy changes. Unfortunately, quite to the contrary, data from several apprenticeship countries suggest that apprenticeship graduates are less likely to participate in adult education than graduates from general education programs as they become older. This may be partly due to the fact that general education programs develop skills that facil- itate later learning throughout one’s career. In addition, as long as an employee stays with the same company, the company is likely to offer the kind of job-specific courses that update the worker’s skills in the particular profession. However, companies obviously do not have an incentive to provide the kind of training courses that would prepare their employees to work in a different profession, something that is increasingly needed in changing economies.
As a consequence, it may be worth considering the establishment of a system for lifelong learning that does not only update workers’ skills within their occupation but also conveys skills that facilitate their flexibility if changing labor-market conditions require occupational change. That is, it is important to strengthen lifelong learning for graduates of vocational education programs on a broader scale. These requirements will become increasingly severe as we move more into being a knowledge economy and as digitization and automation of routinized job tasks require adaptability to change.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Facing the life-cycle trade-off between vocational and general education in apprenticeship systems: An economics-of-education perspective | Woessmann | Journal for Educational Research Online / Journal für Bildungsforschung Online

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