Vocational and Technical Education Is in Demand, Posing Urgency for Reform


Detailing the demand for career and technical education, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) reported last fall that about 1 million post-secondary professional certificates are being awarded each year, due largely to the affordability of technical colleges and vocational schools, their shorter time requirements to complete, and the high return on investment they often yield. Also, 800,000 associate degrees are awarded each year and roughly 400,000 Americans enter into registered apprenticeships annually.

“Over a long period, there has been limited growth in four-year university enrollments,” Simon Field, leader of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) reviews of vocational education and training, told IMT Career Journal. “But in recent years, there has been rapid growth in shorter certificate programs. These vocational programs are typically between six months and two years full-time — but are commonly pursued part-time — and many of them show good earnings returns.”

According to CEW, industry-specific certifications are becoming more prevalent, accounting for $25 billion of spending on human capital development. CEW also noted that employer-based training now accounts for $3 out of every $5 spent on post-secondary education and training.

In a new OECD study, co-authored by Field and Małgorzata Kuczera, career and technical education, or CTE, programs offered by colleges and employers in the U.S. received high marks, although the organization also identified several challenges.

The OECD’s newly published review of vocational education and training, titled A Skills Beyond School Review of the United States, describes the nation’s CTE approach as strong, applauding the inclusive philosophy of the country’s comprehensive high schools and open-access community colleges.

The capacity for students to enter and re-enter post-secondary programs, with many options for full- and part-time study, is stronger in the U.S. than in most other OECD-member countries, and the nation’s community college system has a wide geographical spread that allows most of the population to be served. Diverse credentials are available, and, on average, labor market returns from post-secondary CTE — associate degrees and certificates — are good. The study’s authors also point to “a rich field of policy development and innovation, involving state governments and many non-government organizations,” as an advantage.

Yet this diversity of learning institutions, programs, credentials, and policies carries a downside. The study’s authors cite three significant barriers:

  1. The basic skills of U.S. teenagers and high school graduates are relatively weak compared with those in many other OECD-member countries.
  2. Decentralization of CTE makes it more difficult for individuals to target a career or an occupation.
  3. The financial risks of investing in post-secondary education can be higher in the U.S. because costs and returns are highly variable.

For many U.S. manufacturers, the OECD’s findings underline their labor force concerns.

“We have heard from manufacturers throughout the U.S. about their challenges in finding the next generation of skilled workers,” said AJ Jorgenson, communications director of the Manufacturing Institute, the  research arm of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). “This challenge will only grow as the demographics of our workforce drive ‘boomer’ retirements and replacement requirements,” she told IMT Career Journal.

The OECD report warns that relatively weak quality assurance, rising tuition fees, constrained public budgets, and general economic distress creates “a dangerous mix” of financial risk both for individuals and lenders, including the federal government.

“While the challenges are longstanding, they are becoming more pressing, as reductions in state-level funding for community colleges and the expansion of private for-profit sector providers mean that the individual costs of investing in post-secondary CTE are increasing,” the OECD study makes clear. “Unless these challenges are addressed robustly, they could undermine the broader goal of improving the skills of the U.S. labor force.”

The OECD’s overarching recommendation is for the nation to strategically pursue quality, coherence, and transparency in its post-secondary education system. The report’s authors say this will help deliver the skills training and credentials needed to build employer confidence, support student success, and maintain the global standing of the U.S. workforce.

Among the specific recommendations of the study are:

  • Substantially strengthen quality assurance in post-secondary education and its links to Title IV student aid.
  • Establish a quality standard for industry-specific credentials, especially certifications.
  • Develop workplace training as a standard element in post-secondary career and technical programs.
  • Systematically develop and support prior learning assessment as a means of encouraging adults to return to post-secondary education and because of its wider benefits.
  • Ensure that post-secondary students have sufficient information and guidance.

“The current arrangements linking Title IV student aid to quality assurance are unsustainable,” read the study. “The post-secondary quality assurance system is weak and inconsistent, places too great reliance on institutional accreditation arrangements, and inadequately addresses the requirements of CTE programs.”

Emphasizing the real-world occurrence of transitions into and out of post-secondary programs, the study says that one key challenge is “ensuring that learning acquired in one setting can be recognized and made portable, smoothing entry into different contexts of learning and careers.” According to Field and Kuczera, stronger CTE in high school, alongside substantive and high-quality workplace training, would help the population transition into post-secondary education and into the labor market.

Particularly as technical skill requirements rise across job categories and industries, the study’s emphasis on better tailoring career and technical training to employers’ real-world needs stands out.

“This is a challenge that the United States shares with many other countries,” Field told Career Journal. “Workplace learning is a powerful way of learning hard and soft skills from the real experts – practitioners in the workplace. But it also helps to promote the partnerships between training providers and employers that ensure that the training provided meets employer needs and adapts to changing technologies and working practices.”

For its part in validating and upgrading the skills and competencies of workers, the Manufacturing Institute launched the NAM-Endorsed Skills Certification System to address the skills gap challenge and to promote better manufacturing education across the country. The institute has also launched the M-List, a new designation that recognizes learning environments that develop high-skilled manufacturing workers.

“The NAM-Endorsed Skills Certification System is a system of stackable credentials that can apply to all sectors in the manufacturing industry,” Jorgenson explained. “These nationally portable, industry-recognized credentials validate the skills and competencies needed to be productive and successful in entry-level positions in any manufacturing environment. The M-List recognizes high schools, community colleges, technical schools, and universities that are teaching manufacturing students to industry standards.”

As the OECD study proposes significant reforms, Field recommends that individual students and young professionals looking at their education routes toward a technical career choose their programs carefully.

“There are lots of good programs out there but also some duds. Try to find out what happened to previous graduates of the program,” Field said. “Check the costs and make sure you are going to be able to repay any loans you take on. Find out if internships are part of the program.”


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