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Vocational courses are not to be sneered at, if recent salary forecasting is anything to go by. Emily Clark reports on how the future needs of industry are being met

Helen Triebel has wanted to be a hairdresser for as long as she can remember, but knowing how to get there was a mystery. Then, two years ago her school encouraged her to attend a hair and beauty course at East Devon college.

"I've always known exactly what I wanted to do, but without the link course I would not have known how to get into it," says Helen, 15. "I've been given an opportunity which I would probably not have had otherwise."

After completing her City and Guilds certificate in hairdressing, Helen would like to take up an apprenticeship and go straight to NVQ level 2. At this stage, Helen and her friends on the course are motivated by colours, styles and fashions. Earning potential is not a serious consideration.

However, they might be surprised to learn their occupation is forecast to have the greatest earning potential of any vocation.

Recent research by City and Guilds, called Future Earnings - Golden Vocations, shows that increasing demand for leisure and sports, security, hairdressing, and beauty services will mean high rises in salary for these vocations. By 2020, managers in these professions may command an average salary of up to pound;91,000.

In response to industry needs, City and Guilds is launching a number of new courses including CCTV public space surveillance, recycling operations, aviation operations and a range of qualifications in professional cookery.

One course in manufacturing practices will provide technical knowledge for apprentices in everything from steel to food production.

Carolyn Davies, director of 14-19 at Barnet college, recognises a trend in students towards high-earning careers: "These days, students are always thinking about how much money they can earn and that is why so many go into the sciences. IT is up and down, boom and bust. It is in a lull at the moment."

In response, Ms Davies has introduced a City and Guilds computer engineering course, E-quals, for 14-year-olds in neighbouring schools. It is similar to a course for unemployed adults that the college has previously run. Within two years the adult cohort was earning more than the lecturers, and even poached one of them. "E-quals is about building and repairing computers rather than understanding software and packages," she says. "There are a lot of employment opportunities in the area because few people can actually mend computers or build them to spec."

However, the push to get more bums on college seats was not simply to reward vocational learners with lucrative careers. In October, when the Government made a commitment to ensure 14-19-year olds access to vocational courses, it was responding to evidence that the UK faces serious skills deficiencies. Research shows that recruitment problems in England are increased by a lack in generic skills such as customer-handling, team-working and problem solving.

The Learning Skills Council, in partnership with the SSDA, monitors recruitment and skills deficiencies to produce regular projections on employment needs in England. Its Skills In England assessment found that many industries are following financial service call centres to places such as India and China, where products and services are cheaper. The report also found that the output of UK firms per hour lags behind France, Germany and the United States. The report, published in 2002, suggests that the ability of UK firms to compete depends in part on the ability of managers to foster the necessary skills.

Sue Thatcher, inclusive learning manager at Bridgewater college in Somerset, is doing exactly that. "We don't teach 14-year-olds managerial skills, but all the courses involve aspects of business and right from the start we are encouraging them to think about the long term, such as going on to do NVQs or owning their own business."

However, this in itself is not going to address the national skills deficit. Furthermore, over-subscription on popular courses like construction and hairdressing means colleges have to turn away keen pupils.

East Devon college has seen its intake on the hair and beauty course rise from 140 to 250 in two years and will be cutting back this year.

This is complicated by the perception of vocational education in schools.

"A lot of mainstream schools are reluctant to get into vocational studies because they are happy with what they are doing. Parents are hard to convince because they look at a school's academic success, not its alternative options," Ms Davies says.

"Schools do not know very much at all about the number of teachers, methods of assessment, timetables and hours needed. Some schools, especially specialist ones, can manage level 3 but it is difficult to offer more than one or two courses."

Keith Brooker, director of group markets and products at City and Guilds, has similar reservations: "My greatest fear is that schools believe they have to make these options available and then do it badly."

This is why a full-scale reform of 14-19 education means a complete overhaul of the system, according to Teresa Bergin, head of sector qualification reform at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. She is working on the development of the new diplomas, five of which are due to be available in 2008. "You have to realise that the landscape of learning is going to look completely different in 10 years time," she says. "It is unlikely that a single institution could deliver even one diploma on its own. The infrastructure and resources and supply of staff available will have to change. The learning and teaching methodology will be very different.

"We need to look at existing resources but also utilise the employment network. We have to put employers in the picture and give them the skills they say they need."

Diploma students will have a very different learning experience. It is planned that specific technical skills like putting together a widget will be learnt on the job, while customer care, management and problem-solving skills will be learnt at a very high level in schools.

Ms Bergin adds: "Nobody, even after level 3 (A-level equivalent), is occupationally ready, but students will have skills for specific areas which are transferable. Students will learn how to apply skills and then how to evaluate what they have done on the job. It is a question of providing the right resources, expertise and environment; the interaction between different organisations, teaching styles and experiences. Learning has to be as much about context as content."

Jaine Clarke, director of skills and strategy planning at the LSC, agrees:

"It's about schools, colleges, providers and employers working together.

None of these can provide sufficient breadth or depth on their own - or give the young person the range of experiences they need to support further learning and, eventually, employment.

"There are some fantastic local examples of partners working together in this way, such as Wolverhampton's 14-19 pathfinder. Effective planning and partnership, common timetables across all providers and tackling transport issues will mean that a young person can be in their school in the morning and at a college in the afternoon. The best of all worlds."

The learning environment and choice are things that Anita Stevens, curriculum area manager at East Devon College, strongly believes in.

"Coming into college is a choice for students and the apathetical learners are motivated by the change in environment and the number of options available. I see them grow in confidence during the course."

Helen Triebel is a case in point. "A few of my friends don't know what they want to do yet, but here they have experiences and opportunities to try to things out." she says. "I'm lucky because I have always known what I wanted to do, and I feel like I have had a head start."

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