As we look around the corner to the occupations of tomorrow, schools and states will need to be more dynamic and future oriented–especially when it comes to career and technical education. – Vicki Phillips in Forbes

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by Jackie Kraemer & Jennifer Craw

In the 21st century, vocational education and training (VET) plays a vital role in preparing students not only for immediate employment, but also with skills that allow students to continue their education and training and learn throughout their careers. The best vocational education systems have both raised the level of academic rigor in traditional programs in the crafts and trades and also broadened the programs of study to include highly technical, traditionally white-collar fields such as biotechnology, computing and precision engineering. VET programs differ widely from country to country, but the strongest systems offer both work- or school-based learning designed with business involvement and clear pathways to further options for study or higher-level training.

CIEB is currently undertaking a comparative international study of VET systems. The purpose of this study is to examine the VET systems of a half dozen countries, with a focus on identifying the strategies that account for quality, equity and productivity. For this month’s Statistic, we look at some basic data from three VET systems—Germany, Singapore and Switzerland— that offer strong initial VET training to a large percentage of young people to prepare them for work and further education. These systems offer vocational programs starting in upper secondary school, so we look first at how students entering these programs perform on PISA, an international assessment taken by students at the age of 15.

Source: OECD PISA 2012

These three countries scored above the OECD average on all three sections of PISA 2012. Singapore, which has recently undertaken a large-scale reform of vocation education, was among the top five countries overall in all three subjects on PISA 2012. Switzerland ranked 9th overall for Mathematics in 2012, making it the second highest-ranking European nation (behind tiny Liechtenstein) in Mathematics. And Germany is one of the few countries to have improved continuously since the first round of PISA tests. A strong academic foundation is important for vocational training to produce highly skilled graduates. The OECD has recently linked the performance of 15-year-olds on the 2000 PISA examination with the performance of 26-27-year-olds on the 2012 Survey of Adult Skills, reinforcing the difficulty of helping young adults to excel once they have already fallen behind at age 15.

Next, we look at the percentage of young people who choose to pursue vocational programs rather than general education programs in upper secondary school (grades 11 and 12 in the American education system).   According to OECD data, in Singapore and Switzerland, 65 percent of students choose to pursue a vocational pathway, and in Germany 48 percent of all students opt for vocational education, which is close to the OECD average of 46 percent. In these countries, the rigor and reputation of these programs makes them an attractive option for many students. In the United States, while some schools and districts offer vocational courses and programs, no official industry-recognized vocational certificates are offered to upper secondary students nationally which is why the OECD classifies all secondary students in the United States as participating in the general education program. However, data from NCES show that only about 18% of U.S. high school students take more than one vocational course in a single career pathway. In Germany, Switzerland and Singapore upper secondary students who choose to pursue a vocational diploma do so with the assurance that if they finish the program they will earn the necessary credentials to fill an entry-level position in their field of choice or move on to further education or training.

Uppersecondary VET rates
Source: OECD Education at a Glance; Singapore number from The Phoenix: Vocational Education and Training in Singapore

One result of a strong vocational education and training system is a lower rate of youth unemployment. The chart below compares employment rates of youth, ages 15-29, in Singapore, Switzerland, Germany and the United States. While the U.S. has a youth unemployment rate at about the OECD average of 15 percent, the systems with strong upper secondary vocational programs have some of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world. This is not a coincidence. According to the upcoming CIEB case study of Switzerland: “For [Swiss] students opting for vocational education, the vast majority succeed in lining up a three- or four-year apprenticeship contract which they sign with their parents, and which leads to a Federal VET Diploma. They get help from a local career center if needed in finding apprenticeships, but they learn about the labor market during the search. The availability of openings in the apprenticeship market signals which careers are growing and which are stagnant or declining. This ensures that youth entering the VET program will have strong employment prospects when they finish their training.

Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2014, Singapore numbers from Straits Times

The best vocational programs not only prepare students to enter the workforce, but also allow students to pursue further training and education if they choose to do so. In all three of the high performing systems in the charts above, pathways exist which allow vocational students to continue their education at the post-secondary level, and even to switch over to an academic pathway if they so choose. As shown in the graphic below, Swiss students who successfully complete an upper secondary vocational program have the choice to pursue further qualifications in professional colleges or to pursue a Federal Vocational Baccalaureate which then allows them to apply to both Universities of Applied Sciences or Universities and Federal Institutions of Technology.

The Structure of Switzerland’s VET Program

Click here to see a visualization of similar educational pathways available to vocational students in Singapore.

The OECD recently released a new report on vocational education, Skills Beyond School: Synthesis Report. The report, which aggregates data from twenty studies of the vocational systems of OECD countries, encourages countries to develop vocational systems that train students in the latest and most critical skills and guide them along clear career pathways. A strong vocational program that prepares students to enter the workplace or to move on to further education and training benefits not only the individual students, but the entire economy those students will eventually support. CIEB will soon be releasing a report looking at some of the top performing vocational education and training systems around the world with lessons for the United States. Click here to read the first completed case study, The Phoenix: Vocational Education and Training in Singapore.