Young people across Europe believe a "stigma" is attached to vocational education, despite accepting that it can be more useful for finding work than an academic route.
A major report on youth employment on the Continent says that this bias is dissuading young people from taking the best routes to the jobs they want, particularly as employers are increasingly demanding vocational skills to fill the growing proportion of higher-skilled jobs in the market. The result, according to the report, is a severe "skills mismatch".
The findings are revealed in a survey of 5,300 young people, 2,600 employers and 700 post-secondary education providers across eight European Union member states by management consultancy McKinsey.
In five of the countries surveyed for Education to Employment: getting Europe's youth into work, students taking an academic course said they believed society valued that kind of education more than vocational study. But even those students thought the latter was probably more useful in finding work.
In four of the countries, more than half the young people who took the academic route said they would have preferred to have taken a vocational course but had experienced social pressure to do otherwise.
"This matters," the report states. "Vocational training enables students to learn specific, job-oriented competencies and is part of the solution to narrowing the skills gap that so many employers complain about."
Simon Bartley, president of WorldSkills International, which hosts the WorldSkills competition for vocational students every two years, said that parents and teachers often "foisted" on young people the idea that university degrees were better than vocational courses for achieving success in life.
"Yet when I talk to young people it's clear they value skills and vocational education," he said. "I think there are many more young people who would like to do a vocational course than actually go ahead, and (they) do that because their parents or teachers don't think it's good enough for them."
But social bias is not the only barrier to students taking up vocational courses, according to the McKinsey report. In most countries, it says, the pathway to vocational education is less clearly marked and often much more poorly funded than the academic one. Confusion is also common, with too many vocational qualifications on offer and not enough information about which are useful for employment.
In the UK, for example, the number of qualifications available has tripled since 2008 to more than 20,000, which are offered by almost 150 different organisations.
It is often unclear what qualifications are needed for which skills or how qualifications progress, the report says. However, Mr Bartley suggested that was a "red herring", as the free market would not support courses that failed to lead to employment or further study.
But Chris Jones, chief executive of UK vocational education body City amp; Guilds, said the sector had to improve nevertheless. "This is something that as a sector we have got to do a better job at: helping parents to understand the opportunities and potential for their children," he said.
"This report confirms the challenge but also the opportunity available for young people, employers and the sector, that vocational education still has a lot to offer."
The report calls for a "revamp" of the image of vocational education in Europe, and points to Singapore's national vocational programme, the Institute for Technical Education (ITE), as a potential inspiration.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the ITE was "widely derided as a place of last resort for the not-so-intelligent", the McKinsey report says. However, it transformed its image by upgrading its instructors and infrastructure and improving its curriculum.
Positive public perception of the programme more than doubled from 34 per cent in 1997 to 70 per cent in 2013, and a survey of employers in 2012 showed that ITE students were well-regarded and their employment rate was above 90 per cent for the majority of courses.
The McKinsey report also says that young people should think more strategically about their futures, particularly in many European countries where students have to make "life-defining" decisions about their educational futures at the age of 15. It adds that students need more and better-quality information about different career paths - and need to be motivated to use it.
Find the report here
Gap in perception
33% of employers said a lack of skills was causing them major business problems
61% of employers were not confident that they could find enough applicants with the right skills
74% of education providers were confident that their graduates were prepared for work, but only
38% of young people agreed
Source: Education to Employment: getting Europe's youth into work, McKinsey.