Voices in Education

Can "Learning for Jobs" work in the U.S.?
Across today’s developed countries, educators, policymakers, and economists recognize that the new “knowledge economy” demands different, higher-level skills than the 20th-century high school or upper secondary school provided. Young people interested in white-collar jobs in high-growth areas such as health care, tourism, and high tech as well as those choosing the old trades need sophisticated skills. The recognition of this reality has put a spotlight on vocational education and training (VET)—as it is called in Europe, or career and technical education (CTE)—as it is called in the U.S. In his recent New York Times article, Jacques Steinberg is right to draw attention to the questions raised by the practices in other countries that match education much more closely to labor market needs.

In 2007, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) launched a VET study at the request of the ministers of the 30 OECD countries. The study, which spanned 17 countries, was called “Learning for Jobs.” I’ve spent the last three months in the Education and Training Policy division of the OECD where I have had the luxury of studying the reports and other OECD policy research, and talking to people about VET across several OECD countries.

One definitive piece of data from these studies is that countries that transition young people more successfully, in a shorter time, and more securely from schooling to stable careers share several characteristics. The decisive factors in Switzerland and Germany along with Australia, Austria, Denmark, Netherlands, and Norway are that these countries:
  • Have VET/CTE systems that serve the majority of students;
  • Match education closely to labor market needs by combining work and learning in VET programs leading from upper secondary to jobs, or increasingly through postsecondary education in applied learning institutions to jobs;
  • Have standardized qualifications developed with participation of and buy-in from employers and unions that are accepted as trusted currency in the labor market; and
  • Provide tailored work and learning programs built on sanctions and rewards for those young people in need of special support, but do not expect the mainstream VET system to serve them.

In short, the smartest and quickest route to a wide variety of occupations many young people in these successful countries is a vocational program that integrates work and learning increasingly including vocational or professional education at the post secondary level.

The successes of other countries and the paths they are pursuing raise the following question: will increasing attainment of postsecondary degrees alone produce the best labor market outcomes for young people and for our economic prosperity? Steinberg refers to some tantalizing recent data from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce that suggest that the tide may be turning. For example: 22 percent of Associate’s degree holders earn more than the median earnings of BA holders, and 14 percent more than the median earnings of those with graduate degrees. The reason has to do with the need for the skills they have acquired, not the fact that they have completed a degree. These data point in the direction that most other countries are pursuing.

Three trends stand out among the OECD countries studied:
  • Countries that already have strong vocational education systems are strengthening them by adding more apprenticeship opportunities, retooling curriculum to better match labor market needs, adding high tech postsecondary pathways, and engaging at-risk young people in integrated work and learning programs through “youth guarantees” and “mutual obligation” policies.
  • High-status vocational education is promoted as the pathway of choice for the majority with postsecondary options increasingly including traineeships, and university education is designed for a small number of young people bound for research careers or law, medicine, and the like.
  • Countries that have had a “college education for all” strategy are rethinking it; adding more career-oriented postsecondary options with work-based learning requirements, and reinventing or expanding upper-secondary pathways that include apprenticeships and training schemes in high-demand occupations such as IT, health care, tourism, and engineering technology.
The U.S. is not going to turn into Switzerland or Germany. But the low youth unemployment rates in these countries despite the recession, and their successes with middle-level achievers, or those preferring to engage in the labor market before rather than after a BA degree should raise some questions for the U.S. about a pure education route as the best way to support young people on the road to adulthood and what is called in Europe “the working life.”

To address the common objection to much of Europe’s targeted career preparation starting in high school—that it promotes tracking—there is ample proof across the OECD countries that early learning in an occupational field with strong general knowledge and skills built in need not limit the future of a young person. On the contrary, young people can change careers just as adults do. Most important is the experience of training for an occupation with the knowledge that a future position exists, that there are opportunities to practice the occupation and try it out, and that one’s qualifications have meaning.

The U.S. is on the brink of recognizing that while postsecondary completion is a worthy goal, the skills, competences, and knowledge obtained are just as important. My organization, Jobs for the Future, supported in part by the Lumina and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations, is engaged in several projects intended to launch students securely into employment (see Jobs to Careers, Career First, and a project just getting started that will target high-value sub-baccalaureate technical programs). Other nonprofits and community and technical colleges are also engaged in such efforts. Educators and labor market analysts in the U.S. appear ready to act on one of the perverse benefits of the fiscal crisis—that many young people are best to enter programs wherein skills are targeted to job requirements; labor market outcomes are specified; and costs, quality, and length of training are clear.

About the Author: Nancy Hoffman is a vice president at Jobs for the Future. She is the co-editor of Minding the Gap and author of Woman's "True" Profession.