By Roland Østerlund, former director general of the Ministry of Education, Denmark

New Book: Nancy Hoffman, Schooling in the Workplace: How Six of the World’s Best Vocational Education Systems Prepare Young People for Jobs and Life. Harvard Education Press, Nov. 2011

On the shelf with literature on education there is a wealth of books and articles on higher education issues but little on the possibilities for the large group of young people who do not opt for an academic education.  This seems out of balance considering the growing rate of the challenges faced by the latter group as they transition from school into meaningful employment and careers.  The present knowledge based economy places new and much larger demands on our workforce regarding skills, competences, and attitudes. This deepens the gap between the world of school and the world of work, and if we include the impact of the present economic crisis the result is a chilling increase in unemployed youth and school dropouts.

Fortunately, in recent years a growing number of articles and books on this “forgotten” group have been published. Multilateral organizations like the OECD and the European Commission have conducted a lot of recent research and policy initiatives such as setting ambitious multilateral targets. This has been followed up by national targets to reduce school drop-out rates and increase completion rates, but a lot still remains to be done.

Nancy Hoffman’s new book is extremely refreshing in this context. Hoffman combines her life experience working to increase the number of low-income and at-risk young people that finish education with her very recent participation in OECD-reviews of VET (Vocational Education and Training) systems among member states. She states that the book is “written out of a desire to provoke discussion in the United States about features of strong vocational education systems.” Another important quality of the book is that it contains an abundance of facts, issues and lessons for educators, policy makers, business leaders and politicians all over the world.

Hoffman profiles six very different countries in the book: Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands. However, experience from other countries is included in the analysis too. Instead of tedious presentations of the different countries’ systems the book is organized around anticipated questions “that thoughtful and knowledgeable U.S. readers have about vocational education in Europe and Australia” such as: How can countries ensure that VET is broad based and not preparation for a narrow trade? How can countries incentivize firms to engage them in educating young people? What kinds of intermediary organizations do the strongest VET systems employ to liaise between young people, employers, schools, and the state? What kind of pedagogy is relevant in the workplace? How do countries serve struggling young people and those at risk of dropping out of school and being excluded from the labor market? And is there a risk that early tracking results in the replication of social class structures?

By carefully defining fundamental concepts, Hoffman avoids misunderstandings due to different usages of the terms, i.e., What is the difference between certificates, certifications, and licenses? And what is the difference between work-based learning and workplace learning? In my opinion this is crucial in order to communicate features of fundamentally different systems across borders. In addition, Hoffman includes two “Journal Essays” as chapters in the book. One is her own reflections on visits to Swiss companies and their training programs for apprentices; a chapter giving the reader a sense of the young people’s views, aspirations, and experiences. The other essay presents observations and reflections on the German dual system by Harvard professor Robert B. Schwartz.

Hoffmann is by no means arguing for specific solutions in the U.S. case. She has a very clear view of the dissimilarities, flaws and shortcomings of the different systems in play. She offers critiques for the well functioning systems and a clear outline of the different solutions addressing the same national and global challenges. Her attitude is not “they’re good, we’re failing, or vice versa”. Rather, she has one very consistent argument – here cited with one of her many striking statements and in concordance with OECD conclusions – namely that “workplace learning “has compelling attractions” both for young people and for employers; indeed, done well, it appears to be the best way for the majority of young people to prepare for the world of work.”

One of the important contributions of the book is the focus on the upper secondary completion agenda and the national targets for graduation. One of Hoffmann’s conclusions is that in the VET countries, the goal is not to get young people to complete upper secondary school, but rather the higher ambition of engaging them in learning for jobs. Apprenticeships and workplace learning can offer possibilities that schools cannot provide. This important message deserves to be considered by policy makers worldwide.

The final chapter looks at the possibilities for the United States. Hoffman presents a number of promising initiatives and policy developments and offers some reflections on what it would take to improve the designs of the high school and community college programs.

In closing, I enthusiastically endorse Hoffman’s final suggestion to the reader: “Buy a plane ticket to one of the strong VET countries, talk to employers, see young people at work, and decide for yourself whether the system performs as described here.”  Before you travel, I whole-heartedly recommend that you read this book.