Advocating vocation

Written by Martin Addison on 18 September 2013

Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the most diversely-talented person who has ever lived, didn't go to university. He developed his initial artistic skills as an apprentice, as did his contemporary Michelangelo. In their day, vocational training was the recognised route to career success.

500 years later - with the accusation from employers that young job seekers lack core employability skills - vocational training is again being cited as a viable option that can help young people to develop the knowledge and skills that will benefit them in their chosen profession.

A degree used to be the passport to success. But with so many graduates now unable to get a job - and with university fees costing up to £9,000 a year - young people are naturally asking what other options are available. 

One thing is certain. Employers have become much more selective about who they'll recruit. They want candidates who are well prepared for the world of work, with specific competencies, attributes and employability skills such as the ability to get on with different people and work in teams, the ability to articulate themselves and to communicate with others effectively, as well as problem solving skills and self control. The question is: what is the best way for young people to develop these skills?

Apprenticeships are back in vogue - and this time, they're no longer restricted to trades. Companies of all sizes, including blue-chip giants such as Deloitte, LV=, PwC, Rolls-Royce, Superdrug and Tesco have all created apprenticeship schemes, many of which cover white-collar positions. A 2007 study by Sheffield University Management School concluded that the cost of apprenticeship schemes is easily offset by the productivity benefits of training apprentices.

Vocational qualifications have also come under the spotlight. As part of its reforms to post-16 qualifications, the government is planning to introduce a Technical Baccalaureate (TechBacc), an A-level-equivalent vocational qualification, in September 2014. 

Other countries, such as Germany and Sweden, which champion vocational education and training, appear to have been successful in tackling youth unemployment, with data suggesting that young people have fewer problems obtaining their first jobs.

However, in the UK, the problem is not so much in providing vocational qualifications but in getting them to be accepted. A UK Commission for Employment and Skills study (2012) found that the most commonly mentioned barrier to offering vocational qualifications was the perception that employees didn't want them. Employers also revealed a lack of knowledge about vocational qualifications.

Attitudes do seem to be changing though. Back in 2007, a study by the Chartered Management Institute found that academic qualifications were rated more highly by employers than vocational qualifications. Contrast that with a 2013 study by learndirect and Cranfield School of Management which reveals that 42 per cent of employers now see academic and vocational qualifications as equally attractive. Only a third prefer academic qualifications and, interestingly, 18 per cent say vocational qualifications are more attractive than academic qualifications.

The big challenge for employers and education providers has always been to bridge the gap between the classroom and the workplace. Vocational training is one way to make this transition easier.

However, for it to work, the government - and education providers - have much to do in raising awareness of vocational qualifications and apprenticeships. This means communicating the benefits of vocational options to young people and, crucially, to their parents. At Video Arts, we've been working with City & Guilds to develop some video scenarios to engage and inspire young people to want to acquire some of the key employability skills and competencies. 

But there's another side to this. L&D teams also have a role to play in improving the status and acceptability of vocational options, within organisations, so that their value to the business is recognised.

The right pathway into the workplace should be an issue of choice. Young people should be able to choose whether they want to go to university, undertake an apprenticeship or go straight into employment.

Giving young people more options in terms of what they can study and how they can enter the workplace has to be a good thing. How else will employers bring through the Leonardo's and Michelangelo's of tomorrow?

About the author
Martin Addison is CEO of Video Arts. He can be contacted at maddison@videoarts.co.uk
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