What if

we could eliminate the stigma of VET?

 

The view of VET by students and their families, school staff and faculty, career advisors, employers and the broader public is embedded in a range of perceptions. Image, awareness, quality, and relevance are four major and interrelated aspects of these perceptions, some of which are negative and misguided, creating a stigma associated with choosing a VET pathway. In this paper we give a broad overview of the perceptions involved and some of the actions being taken to address them. We then ask, what if we could eliminate the stigma?
 

Perception and stigma

Perceptions of VET are influenced by many factors including quality of training and relevance of training outcomes to the labour market and employers. Terminology and framing that shape these perceptions fall into opposing positions between VET and higher education, 'job versus career; technical versus analytical; applied versus theoretical; trade versus profession' (Snowden & Lewis, 2015, p.590). Underpinning this discourse is a parity of esteem factor, the comparison of VET with higher education, and assumptions that VET is a second-choice pathway even though VET generally caters for different types of jobs to higher education (HE). Despite different national contexts and positive post-training outcomes, the dominating and relatively unchallenged preference for higher education continues to influence many students globally, who believe employment outcomes in VET areas offer fewer financial incentives (Chankseliani, Relly & Laczik, 2015; Kersh & Juul, 2015).

The parity of esteem between VET and academic paths significantly influences students throughout their educational pathways and career planning. Parents are considered the biggest influence on students during this time, ahead of friends, the community, institutions, teachers, and career guidance counsellors (Billett, Choy & Hodge, 2019). Yet parents may have outdated ideas about VET that detract from encouraging their child to choose vocational education (Billett, Choy & Hodge, 2019; ABM UK, 2018). Employment prospects and income after training appear to be at the forefront of these ideas, also perceptions of opportunities for career advancement and, significantly, prevailing social or cultural beliefs, especially the views held by family members (Cedefop, 2014). This is combined with a pervasive idea that vocational schools are filled with disengaged 'dropouts' and non-academic students or those going in this direction as a second choice or fall-back option to academic education (Alavi, Md Sail & Awang 2013; Winch, 2013). These negative attitudes and misconceptions are often based on a lack of knowledge and awareness about the many benefits the trades have to offer, rather than informed or rational estimations (Russo, Serafini & Ranieri, 2019; Atkins, 2016; Cedefop, 2017; McEwen, 2015), and unfortunately this is the case even in countries where graduate employment numbers are comparable to those transitioning to work from higher education (Alavi, Md Sail & Awang 2013).

It is not just family who have a strong influence, teachers, and counsellors, who may have little or no experience or knowledge of VET and the real opportunities it can provide, are often unable to promote VET as an attractive option for young people and can hold negative stereotypical views about it and the types of students it serves. Indeed, where university is held in high esteem, career advice given to students tends to encourage the pursuit of college or university, except when academic difficulties are an issue and a VET pathway is then considered (Winch, 2013). A recent study investigates the perceptions US school counsellors have of Career and Technical Education (CTE) (Kandalec Holm, 2019). Seen as key decision influencers for students, these counsellors revealed their perceptions were determined by how much personal experience or knowledge they have of CTE. Study participants were divided by three factors: CTE Experienced; CTE Spectators; and CTE Conflicted. The CTE Experienced group have a positive view of CTE through personal experience and working closely with it professionally; CTE Spectators have a more neutral viewpoint, seeing CTE as an addition to academic learning, but not a 'standalone program' (Kandalec Holm, 2019, p.17); while CTE Conflicted have very little experience of CTE and believe it to be a 'fall back' option for the less academically able.

Many families still view university as the pathway to success and stability, even with a positive statistical outlook for VET graduates in the US job market, and significantly less cost involved (St-Esprit, 2019). Certainly, the amount of debt a US higher education student incurs to gain a degree, with post graduate studies leading to a much higher increase, may not prove to be value for money given that 'only two-thirds of those with degrees think that the debt was worth it for the education they received' (St-Esprit, 2019 p.1).

Using the 2010 Eurobarometer on VET attractiveness and data from the 2013 OECD TALIS schools data set, and examining VET in schools, Russo, Serafini and Ranieri (2019) explore how attitude can be used to examine the attractiveness of VET, and how attitude is influenced. They determine that the attractiveness of VET is influenced by perceptions of the quality of the education and its effectiveness at delivering 'desirable outcomes' such as good, well-regarded and well-paid jobs, and pathways to further education. Negative attitudes towards VET can occur when people with VET backgrounds experience a lack of career progression or who experience less favourable economic outcomes compared to those who attended general and higher education schools. This study found a positive or negative view of VET will determine how readily someone will recommend the path of VET to someone else.

In Australia, a national survey held in 2017 (Wyman et al.) revealed that despite the belief VET graduates earn at least $10,000 less than a university graduate, VET graduates earn comparable wages if not more. Although these graduates have a higher employment rate compared to those coming out of university, nearly a third of respondents believed the main reason for choosing university is the belief that university graduates find work more easily. A more recent survey of Australian young people was conducted in 2019 (Walker) to find out how much they understand and what their perception is of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) and VET, and how this perception is influenced. Positively, the survey results show 80% of young people believe schools and career advisors have a 'well-rounded' understanding of TAFE and slightly less understanding of VET (70%). However, it is higher for university at 95%. Despite this, one in ten students said their schools were discouraging about TAFE and VET and they were deterred from pursuing these pathways. One student observed TAFE/VET as being stigmatised in high school and portrayed by teachers as something to do if you don't get good grades, labelled as a 'backdoor' or 'plan B' option (Walker, 2019, p.9). This opinion may vary across school sectors.

Internationally, perceptions of VET are hampered by significant challenges. In the UK, academic-vocational discourse continues to be at odds where VET, commonly called further education, has historically struggled to raise its esteem within the English class system, particularly apprenticeships (Brockmann & Laurie, 2016). Many parents may not even know what apprenticeships are and in response do not present these as a viable career option to their children (Chankseliani, Relly & Laczik, 2015; ABM UK, 2018). In Indonesia, facilities and the quality of teachers and instructors 'remain matters of concern' (Ratnata, 2013 p.10). Weak links in Indonesia between industry and vocational training causes a lack of job-readiness among students - after completing technical and vocational education and training (TVET) students simply do not have the skills that employers require. Employers and vocational schools complain of constraints that hinder cooperation, stemming from inadequate infrastructure (Ratnata, 2013; Winch, 2013). Much of the stigma in Indonesia is linked to the historical perception of someone who works with their hands being 'inferior to those who are academically inclined' (Mack & White, 2019, p.140). Similar issues have been observed in Trinidad and Tobago (Mack & White, 2019), where institutions suffer many challenges including quality of teaching, a result of deficient teaching standardisation, and lack of industrial training. Here though, serious practical impacts resulting from changes to political directorates have long lasting effects on perception of quality and continuity including a lack of laws, structure, guidelines, and policies to administer VET effectively, cuts to VET infrastructure, and closures of institutions. Whilst quality is a substantial consideration for many countries including Saudi Arabia, India, Malaysia, China, and Russia, there are also remarkably strong links between perceptions of VET and gender, family income, parental education level, and social status which remain staunchly prevalent influences of negative perceptions of VET in broader society (Aldossari, 2020; Jambo & Pilz, 2018; Ratnata, 2013).

Clearly, the perception of VET is a complex issue globally, defined by both external and internal factors: how potential students, and society, view the system subjectively; and the factors within that system that may affect attractiveness, such as relevance to the labour market and overall quality (Cedefop 2014). Across regions there are also mixed perceptions - a valued path to address unemployment, tackle social inclusion and build economies – and simultaneously, a second choice to general and higher education (Cedefop, 2017; Kersh & Juul, 2015). One thing is unanimous, perceptions can only change if these challenges are addressed. A prominent view throughout the literature is that if the attractiveness of VET is to be enhanced amongst employers, individuals, and parents, a range of support is needed from governments and VET providers.

What is being done?

Governments and VET providers attempt to navigate the stigma of VET by engaging with a range of strategies which improve attractiveness. Although the effectiveness of these strategies is dictated by the context and existing standing of VET in individual countries, when combined successfully, negative perceptions of VET have been seen to reduce (Cedefop, 2014).  Commonly employed strategies include creating diverse pathways and programs; quality improvement and assurance; and marketing campaigns highlighting the benefits of VET to attract potential students. Other strategies are more long-term, for example structural changes, enacted as part of government policies that seek to improve the quality of VET and student outcomes (Cedefop, 2014). We have selected a few examples to discuss below, but there are many other strategies being employed.

Quality and structural improvement

VET has significant quality concerns that contribute to poor perceptions of its potential value. International literature points to improving quality and relevance of VET from a structural viewpoint (Cedefop, 2014; Newman College, 2020; Russo, Serafini & Ranieri, 2019). However, it is not only important to invest in education and training facilities, quality teacher training, particularly in countries where esteem is very low, is seen as a vital component to improving perceptions (Jambo & Pilz 2018; Ratnata 2013). For example, in Austria, specialised colleges have been set up to provide voluntary training to apprenticeship trainers; whilst in Hungary, vocational teachers were placed in an organisation in their field to update their knowledge of the newest technology and techniques used (Cedefop 2014).
 
Reform in the educational system in the form of structural changes could also improve perceptions of quality. In India, articulation between educational pathways is not possible, leading to the perception of VET as a 'dead-end' without opportunities for further education, increasing permeability could see vast improvements in perception (Jambo & Pilz, 2018). In contrast, France positions VET as having an educational purpose beyond employability alone, and expresses this in the curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment of VET programs, which have the same responsibility to develop the individual and civic capabilities of young people as higher education programs. This approach allows for greater recognition of vocational education in the wider education system and contributes to the permeability of qualifications (Winch, 2013). Past reforms in both Luxembourg and Iceland focused on improving horizontal and vertical permeability by implementing credit systems that are portable when students move through different educational pathways (Cedefop, 2014). Whilst reforms to the Danish VET system indicate a significant push towards connecting industry and production, clearly linking the value of VET to its value to industry overall. These reforms were launched in 2014, under the slogan 'Denmark in the future is to be both a production and a knowledge society' (Kersh & Juul, 2015, p.30), and have encouraged positive perceptions.

There have also been significant changes to the governance of the Australian VET sector. These include the creation of the National Careers Institute (NCI) as an independent source of reliable, authoritative, accurate and wide-ranging careers information resources and support (Myconos, 2019). In addition, the National Skills Commission (NSC) was created and has three main goals. The first is the provision of enduring and relevant labour market information. The second is improving the quality, accessibility and relevance of VET, and the final goal is to contribute to aligning the skill needs of the labour market with education and training (National Skills Commission, n.d.a). The Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) gained better resourcing, more transparency and started assuming broader responsibilities including becoming the single national regulator. The piloting of industry owned Skills Organisations (SOs) commenced to deepen industry engagement with the VET sector and for the sector to be more responsive to industry needs. Following these pilots, an Industry Cluster arrangement will be established, to be operational by 1 January 2023, to meet the needs of industry and employers and their skill needs. This arrangement is designed to improve speed to market of qualifications and also to make sure that training products are aligned to the skill needs of industry (Australian Government, n.d.a).

Incentives

Financial incentives offer a means to change both perceptions and behaviour in VET. Governments may offer scholarships or subsidised training to attract students to fields of training; provide stipends to businesses who recruit apprentices; or give grants to companies that hire VET graduates. In Germany, for example, the TrainingPlus project (BIBB, n.d.) was initiated to improve the attractiveness of initial vocational education and training (IVET) for young people who were increasingly preferring to pursue higher education rather than VET. The project's two main strategies are gaining additional qualifications during regular training in the dual system, and dual system programs that provide higher education studies with vocational qualifications or work placement. Higher education institutions receive public money to develop these study programs (Cedefop, 2014).

In Australia, examples of subsidised VET training include the JobTrainer program (Australian Government, n.d.b.), providing funding toward low-fee short courses and qualifications for in-demand occupations to Australians who are unemployed, receive an income support payment or are aged 17-24; the Additional Identified Skills Shortage (AISS) payment (DESE, n.d.) is available to eligible apprentices, and their employers, in ten priority occupations experiencing national skills shortages; and the Smart and Skilled program, which provides eligible people in New South Wales (NSW) with access to subsidised VET training up to Certificate III level. A review of the Smart and Skilled program, conducted after its first year, identified that overall, the program had mixed results, including that there is limited awareness of the program despite the Government's best efforts. The report suggests that this may be part of a broader lack of awareness of all the VET options in NSW (Nous Consulting Group, 2015).

Information provision and career guidance

One of the most prevalent themes emerging from the literature is the need for accessible, accurate and impartial information on VET to help potential students make informed decisions about their education and reduce the stigma barrier to VET. Making VET an attractive option to school leavers requires young people to be aware of VET opportunities and the differences between VET and university education (Cedefop, 2017). This was evident in a Swiss study, which found that the stigma of VET decreased for foreigners living in the country as their knowledge of the system and its benefits increased (Bolli & Rageth, 2015). Those in the best position to influence the attitudes of young people to vocational education, such as parents, guidance counsellors and teachers, also need access to up to date information about the sector (Billet, Choy & Hodge, 2019; Cedefop, 2014). Students have indicated that their parents need to be better informed about VET, recommending marketing materials such as online videos and physical brochures. Giving parents better information, in simple and accessible formats, may reduce misinformation about VET being given to young people (Walker, 2019).

Guidance counsellors in schools have the potential to improve VET attractiveness by providing individualized advice and information about suitable educational pathways. Kandalec Holm (2019) suggests providers of vocational education could give opportunities to counsellors to gain better experience of the sector, thereby benefiting informed student choice and removing a potential source of negative stigma for students. This call for high quality advice is echoed in Winch (2013), who suggests specialist career advisers should be expected to spend considerable time doing first-hand research on VET and employment opportunities. In Australia, the National Careers Institute (NCI) provides overarching careers information resources and support (DESE, 2021a).

Marketing campaigns and rebranding

Marketing and media campaigns can be an effective way to reach out to students and their families, as well as the broader public, to increase awareness of new policies and programs and improve public perceptions of the VET sector. Awareness of VET programs can be improved by widening messaging format to include television, websites, and social media (Cedefop, 2014). Communications should emphasise the concepts most important to young people, such as finding a job in line with their passions and individual skills (Walker, 2019).

Some marketing strategies highlight the disadvantages of higher education pathways. For example, in the US, demand for middle-skilled professionals is growing, while university graduates are in oversupply in some sectors (Monk, 2018). Burning Glass Technologies (2018; Seiglman et al, 2018) highlight that between 33% and 45% of college graduates are underemployed in their first jobs. It is little wonder 'College doesn't make sense' is the message being pushed by trade schools and apprenticeship programs in response to this and the high dropout rates and burgeoning student loan debts in higher education (St-Esprit, 2019).

Seen as an avenue to changing pervasive and outdated social expectations of the sector, a popular technique used in marketing campaigns is renaming or rebranding of the term vocational education. Other terms for VET may centre on 'technology education', 'careers education', 'technical education' or 'industry education', which may be more informative and perhaps lack the negative connotations that 'vocational education' has suffered historically (Cedefop, 2014; Joyce, 2019). According to the Joyce Review, the scope of the term 'VET' or 'vocational education' is not well understood in Australia; many people relate VET mainly to public TAFEs or traditional trade apprenticeships. The review recommended rebranding to an alternative such as 'Skills Education', which would hopefully market the sector as a modern, skill acquisition focused alternative to university education (Joyce, 2019). In addition, the National Careers Institute (NCI) partners with businesses and individuals throughout Australia to highlight the benefits that VET pathways offer. Their initiative 'VET Information Strategy - Real Skills for Real Careers' addresses misconceptions around VET and guides an understanding of the opportunities presented by VET. The NCI uses events of national significance, such as skills competitions, to create awareness (DESE, 2021b).

Skills competitions

Skills competitions, like Worldskills, have become a major component in raising the perception of VET and increasing esteem by promoting the internationality and mobility of vocational education (Chankseliani, Relly & Laczik, 2015). Run at regional, national and international levels, these competitions are seen to raise standards, confidence, potential and levels of expertise by providing opportunities to individuals and teams to demonstrate vocational talent using industry-based tasks and real-world scenarios. Experts in the field test, assess and score the talent, practical skills, knowledge and employability attributes of individuals and groups against their peers using set criteria in a competitive, timed environment. Award ceremonies act as significant promotional instruments to introduce youth into technical and technological careers, showcase excellence in VET, highlight prestige and increase aspirations by presenting aspirational role models (Cedefop, 2014).

These competitions are part of an international movement to 'promote and build a skills culture, celebrate excellence and showcase vocational education and training' (Worldskills, 2021). Education and training providers find the competitions to be an upskilling and development method which brings innovation and best practice into the industry and professional skills education into home countries (Worldskills UK, 2021; Worldskills Europe, 2021). In Australia, there are more than 50 trades and skills from the following seven skills clusters represented at the WorldSkills competitions: Construction and Building Technology, Creative Arts and Fashion, Information and Communications Technology, Manufacturing and Engineering Technology, Social and Personal Services, Transport and Logistics, and VET in Schools (VETiS) Competitions. Skills competitions in Australia are aligned to 'National Training Packages, Apprenticeships Australia and Jobs Australia schemes' (Worldskills Australia, 2021).

What if?

There is an increasing need to prepare for the jobs of the future and much of the literature signals the need for a cultural change around the perception of VET for this preparation to occur. It is clearly not only about statistics or labour market information but a broader impact in how vocational training is talked about. Much of the research highlights the ways governments are trying to make this shift, with effective funding playing a significant role, and while different structural approaches, programs, and campaigns have been credited in many countries as improving perceptions of VET, there appears to be little evaluative data to identify overall effectiveness. However, it is evident that shifting perceptions from negative to positive cannot be achieved through individual approaches, a coordinated effort between all stakeholders is needed (Cedefop, 2014). If we revisit this topic with a perspective that more accurately reflects reality, we might consider asking questions like:

  • What if the stigma of VET could be eliminated?
    • Would more people undertake VET if they perceived higher education as less likely to result in positive outcomes?
    • Would VET enrolments and completions increase if its reputation better reflected reality? For example:
      • higher, or comparable income
      • greater ability to meet employer needs
      • less likelihood of underemployment
  • What if the COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst for changing perceptions of VET?
    • There has been clarification as to who the 'essential workers' are in society, could the popularity of VET courses increase due to this? Particularly in industries such as health care, aged care, childcare, transport, logistics and supply chains, agriculture, manufacturing, building and construction, and personal care services (e.g., hairdressing)?
    • Could the number of workers seeking more meaningful and satisfying work have increased? Or an increase in those seeking self-employment so they can work on their own terms? Could these phenomena result in greater engagement with VET to ignite career changes?

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