As Head of Technical and Vocational Pathways in Cambridge International, I support education ministries from across the world find ways to improve the effectiveness of technical and vocational educational pathways (TVE) to prepare young people for the 21st century world of work.
Getting young people ready for future jobs is about much more than helping them to find work. It’s about equipping them to be lifelong learners – giving them the skills to adapt to a rapidly changing employment market.
Governments frequently come to us to ask about best practices in providing effective technical and professional pathways within their secondary education offer.
For TVE in secondary education to work well, it should be closely linked to a country’s socio-economic context. Close ties between school and industry, for instance, offer young people clear pathways for progression into either skilled work, (including self-employment), or into further education.
‘Dual education’ systems
Countries such as Switzerland, Germany and Austria are often seen as among the best examples when it comes to offering students technical and vocational pathways. Technical and vocational routes are popular choices, and youth unemployment is low – making their model a compelling example.
In Switzerland, for instance, 70% of young people opt for a technical and vocational route when they are about 15 years old. With Switzerland boasting one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world – at just 2.4% in January 2019 – it’s little wonder that other countries are seeking to emulate its success.
Each country’s system is different, but they all have a solid industrial and manufacturing base, and a strong tradition of engagement from social partners, which are involved in regulating the professions.
In all three countries, learners spend part of their time in the workplace and part in colleges. This is known as a ‘dual education’ system.
A changing labour market
However, at a recent conference I attended on research into vocational education in the Swiss capital Bern, experts spoke of the challenges the sector is facing, stemming from significant changes to the labour market.
Job opportunities are becoming polarised at each end of the skills and education spectrum, with fewer jobs in the middle of the earning scale. This means that more young people and their parents are shying away from technical and vocational education in favour of higher education. At the same time, employers are reducing their engagement – cutting work placement opportunities and their commitment to skills development.
These challenges, resulting directly from the impact of the digital revolution on the labour market, have the potential to destabilise dual-education systems.
The potential impact goes even further than that. Technical and vocational education is seen to enhance socio-economic equality in these countries. If it is threatened, it could impact not only the economy, but society more widely.
What can be learned from the Swiss, German and Austrian model?
The labour market environment is very different in many other countries. In many developing countries for instance, including many in Africa, there is a greater preponderance of agricultural and informal jobs. This means that the dual-education model would not be suitable for all to emulate.
However, there are still lessons we can learn from Switzerland, Germany and Austria – in particular, their commitment to adapt the model to a changing world.
By closely monitoring changes and anticipating hurdles, the Swiss, German and Austrian governments are able to adapt their education systems to respond to the needs of young people.
Cambridge International’s Education Services team works closely with governments to ensure that any education reform projects they undertake have the maximum impact.
We are working with governments in more than 25 countries on projects ranging from integrated curriculum and assessment design, to professional development for teachers.
 The Future of Work: Regional Perspectives, African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and Inter-America Development Bank, 2018, page 31