Forging a vocational future from age 12

7th March 2014 at 00:00
US state aims to stem unemployment with middle school training

For many leading industrial nations, the fallout from the global economic crisis and the widening skills gap has highlighted an urgent need for improvements to vocational education.

Work-based training was previously seen as an educational dead end in the US, but states are now increasingly embracing it as weapon for combating rising unemployment.

In a move that could have national repercussions, the governor of Ohio, John Kasich, has announced that the state will expand vocational education into middle schools to better equip children as young as 12 for the workplace. The students will learn about traditional vocational careers including construction and engineering, as well as high-tech industries.

The proposal follows a similar recent call by the European Union's vocational education chief, James Calleja, for students to be prepared for work as soon as they start secondary school with better careers guidance and more work experience and job observations.

Although most US states allow vocational education programmes in their middle schools, in practice the majority do not introduce them until high school. But in his state of the state address last week, Mr Kasich said: "How did we ever lose our way on vocational education? Why did we put it down? Why did we not understand its value?"

Students should have a connection to vocational education early on so that they were better prepared for their future careers, he argued. "Your kids can get that kind of training for a skill and a purpose, and it does not keep them from going to a two-year community college or a four-year school," he said. "In fact, they're going to have a better sense of where they're going if we allow our kids to enter those vocational schools."

Commentators have said that introducing vocational education to students in Ohio as early as the 7th grade would send a strong message to the rest of the nation, as would Mr Kasich's references to "vocational education". The more common term in the US is "career and technical education" (CTE).

Sean Lynch, media relations manager at the US Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), told TES there was a "stigma" attached to the sector.

"We try our best to overcome that because we want people to understand this isn't just shop class and home economics, it is about real skills that people can apply in the workplace," he said. "I think what we are seeing on a national level is greater understanding of CTE as a whole. Businesses are starting to reach out to the education community to express what skills they need in their workforces.

"While the majority of the focus nationally has been on the high school level, we are seeing a trend towards more career exploration and technical education in earlier grades."

The ACTE would like to see the Ohio plans "replicated across the whole of the map", Mr Lynch said. "One of the reasons we are so encouraged by the commitment to move CTE into those early grades in Ohio is that students can explore different careers pathways earlier on," he added.

The US is not the only country waking up to the fact that education and careers will need to be more strongly connected in the future.

Much like Mr Kasich, Mr Calleja, director of Cedefop, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, wants students to see the labour market as an important "end result" of their schooling.

Chris Jones, chief executive of UK-based vocational body City amp; Guilds, also gave his backing to the approach.

"Fundamentally, the more opportunities we have to introduce young people to the world of work and the various careers pathways open to them the better," he said. "I don't think at the age of 12 it has to be about engaging them on vocational education programmes necessarily, but the notion of careers and work inspiration programmes is a good idea."

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