Preparing young people for work: do we really have a crisis?

VET in schools won’t necessarily get you a job right out of school, but it’s a good start. Provence of British Columbia/Flickr

In the last 12 months, Australian governments of all persuasions have alluded to a crisis in how we prepare young people for trade and technical jobs. These concerns come in response to a decline in uptake of apprenticeships and concerns about youth unemployment.

A national framework for vocational education and training (VET) for secondary school students released at the end of 2014 set a clear objective for schools in preparing young people for the world of work.

Governments across the country are announcing funding for state-of-the-art trade training facilities. The federal government is also talking up the importance of closer ties between schools and industry, with the piloting of the controversial P-Tech model.

If the policy objective is to support young people in getting sustainable employment, is building a few new trade training schools the way to go? Do we need greater input from business in schools? Is there really a problem with current approaches to trade training in schools?

Existing vocational training programs in schools

Nationally, VET in Schools is already available in more than 90% of secondary schools. Almost a third of 16-year-olds undertake some form of VET in Schools.

Far from being a niche program, each year more than 250,000 students do a VET in Schools program in areas ranging from aged care to hairdressing, baking to picture framing, horticulture to marine tourism. The programs allow students in the latter years of high school to study towards a vocational qualification, while at the same time earning credits towards finishing school.

A majority of VET in Schools students go on to further study. from www.shutterstock.com

A common criticism of VET in Schools is that it has a lack of industry voice in its development and delivery. This has been one rationale for piloting of the P-Tech model - where companies sponsor schools to train young students to be job-ready for their organisation.

Currently, VET in Schools programs are developed in consultation with industry, as well as the VET sector. The focus in this collaborative work is two-fold: what is appropriate for school-aged young people to be studying; and what skills are most relevant to employers.

Outcomes of VET in Schools

For young people completing VET in Schools, relatively high numbers move on to post-school education and training. In Victoria, 68.9% of VET in Schools students continue in post-school education and training.

Transition to post-school study is slightly lower in New South Wales and Queensland, with 62.2% and 55.8% of VET in Schools students going on to further study after high school.

If the main purpose of having VET available to students still at school is providing skills for employment, what role does it play in helping them get jobs? This is where VET in Schools comes in for the most criticism.

For young people hoping to convert their VET in Schools experience to a post-school job, opportunities for full-time, secure employment are declining. Increasing numbers of VET in Schools students are unemployed or entering part-time work without continuing in any form of training. Why is this the case?

VET in Schools is a pathway, not a ticket to a job

Historically, completing high school and/or a low-level trade certificate meant the possibility of getting an entry-level job. Today, the expectation that young people can enter the labour market directly from school and access sustainable employment is a fantasy.

The capacity of VET in Schools, or secondary school generally, to prepare young people for direct entry to work is impacted by the changing nature of the labour market. Good jobs with career potential require post-school qualifications. The low-level qualifications (Certificates I and II) that dominate VET in Schools programs have limited value to employers looking for skilled workers.

So, what should governments be focusing on if they want to improve how we train young people for trade and technical jobs?

A recent study of VET in Schools found vocational education programs in schools should be promoted as a pathway to higher-level post-school VET study, rather than as a pathway directly to jobs without further training.

Achieving this requires greater support for schools in making sure young people understand how to combine a VET in Schools program with their other school studies in a way that gives them the best chance of continuing in post-school training. For example, a student undertaking allied health needs to be doing biology and psychology, and a student hoping to continue into an electrical apprenticeship needs to be doing maths and science.

Strengthening trade training is not simply a question of funding new facilities. While the communities lucky enough to host a new trade training facility would certainly benefit, the resourcing could be better used in supporting schools everywhere to adjust their support of young people, and their use of VET in Schools, in response to the realities of today’s labour market.