Young adults with vocational qualifications enjoy a faster and smoother transition from school to work and have more stable jobs than those with a general education background, according to a major European report.
The study, using data from a European Union-wide labour market survey covering 30 nations, is the first to compare the effects of different educational backgrounds on the transition from education to work across such a large number of countries.
It concludes that vocational education and training is successful in getting young adults into work, both in the short and medium term. It also reveals that medium-level vocational graduates - those with upper- or post-secondary but not university qualifications - are more likely to gain a full-time, permanent first job than their peers with a general education background. They are also likely to earn a much higher initial salary.
Among vocational students, those who follow work-based programmes are more likely to find a job than people who study vocational courses at school, according to the study titled Labour Market Outcomes of Vocational Education in Europe.
However, vocational students are not on top for long. Although they may earn more in their early twenties, by their early thirties they have been significantly overtaken by general education graduates.
Substantial differences exist between countries. In the Czech Republic, Germany and Switzerland - which have strong vocational systems - young adults with vocational training are more likely to be employed than their general education counterparts. In countries where vocational education is less developed, such as Cyprus, Iceland, Ireland and the UK, all young adults face difficulties in finding employment.
Charlynne Pullen, research manager at the City amp; Guilds Centre for Skills Development in the UK, which carries out research into vocational education and training, said this kind of report was "long overdue".
"It is clear that vocational qualifications enable people to move more quickly and smoothly into work," she said. "The (qualifications) are often well suited to the workplace and developed in collaboration with employers. The availability of work experience is a key part of this smooth transition."
But Ms Pullen added that it was a concern that vocational students fell behind in the earning stakes in later years. "There are issues with progression and enabling vocational graduates to move up to further study," she said.
The findings will help inform the EU-wide push towards better vocational education and training. In 2010, EU nations agreed a package of common goals to be achieved between 2011 and 2020. The so-called Copenhagen Process says that by 2020, European vocational education and training systems should be more attractive, career-orientated, innovative and accessible than in 2010, and should contribute to equity in lifelong learning.
Christian Lettmayr, acting director of Cedefop, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, which published the study, said that the findings should also support policymakers in responding to the challenges of high youth unemployment across the Continent.
Alan Tuckett, president of the International Council for Adult Education, said: "A good vocational education and training system is absolutely necessary if a country is not to be in thrall to the banking system for ever.
"In countries such as Germany and Switzerland, the overwhelming majority of people go into vocational education and their economies are booming as a result.
"The problem, as this report identifies, is with progression. Although the initial training ensures that graduates are fit for purpose and find work more easily, workplace training and who gets it is still an issue. It's generally the managers who get more training, while the operatives are left to flounder."
Policymakers should get a better picture of the global situation next month with the expected publication of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Survey of Adult Skills. It is the largest and most comprehensive survey of adult skills ever undertaken, encompassing 165,000 adults between the ages of 16 and 65 in 33 countries worldwide. The survey will measure the key cognitive and workplace skills needed for adults to participate in society and for economies to prosper, and will allow detailed international comparisons.