The COVID-19 crisis is leading to major changes in the labour market. Economic activity has decreased dramatically, and OECD projections estimate that it will take the world economy at least until the end of 2021 to reach pre-crisis output levels (OECD, 2020[1]). 1 The recovery is expected to be uneven, with output remaining around 5% below pre-crisis expectations in many countries in 2022. Sectors such as transportation, hospitality and entertainment continue to be especially affected (OECD, 2020[2]). These factors are reducing the demand for labour and leading to higher unemployment. According to the OECD Employment Outlook, unemployment in OECD countries will remain above or close to its peak level observed during the global financial crisis until well into 2021 (OECD, 2020[2]).

As previous economic recessions have shown, a reduction in economic activity not only affects regular jobs but also apprenticeship places, mostly due to firms trying to cut costs (Brunello, 2009[3]). The current crisis might even bring about a larger reduction in the offer of work-based learning opportunities, including apprenticeships, given the uncertainty regarding possible subsequent waves of the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, but also in light of the difficulty of organising training in workplaces that are faced with strict health and safety regulations. Early estimates project large cuts in the apprenticeship offer over an extended period of time in some countries:

  • A recent report in Australia estimates that the offer of apprenticeships and traineeship opportunities will be reduced by 30% over the next two years. This represents around 130 000 fewer places available from the start of the pandemic until mid-2023 (Hurley, 2020[4]). Shortages in work-based learning opportunities are expected to lead to a significant increase in the number of school leavers not in employment, education or training.

  • A study in Germany shows that, the number of apprenticeship contracts is expected to see a drop of 6% at the start of the 2020/21 school year (Muehlemann, Pfeifer and Wittek, 2020[5]). The impact is predicted to be strongest for high-school students with lower-level qualifications.

  • A study in Switzerland estimates a reduction of at least 20% in the number of apprenticeships available over a 5-year period, with a full recovery to pre-crisis levels expected only by 2025 (Luethi and Wolter, 2020[6]).

  • A survey of 156 apprenticeship-providing employers in England (United Kingdom) at the start of April 2020 showed that 31% of employers reported that they were likely to hire fewer apprentices over the coming year, or none at all (Doherty and Cullinane, 2020[7]). The same survey shows that the reduced offer of apprenticeships would disporportinaly impact opportunities for new young apprentices in lower level programmes.

The COVID-19 crisis has hit certain industries and occupations harder than others. This will have a significant impact on the diversity of work-based learning opportunities on offer to VET students. Such shortages of work-based learning opportunities could prevent some of the current VET students from graduating if it means they do not acquire the required practical skills, and could also have an impact on VET enrolment rates if prospective students no longer consider VET programmes due to the difficulty of finding work-based learning opportunities. The loss of trained professionals for certain industries and occupations due to the crisis could exacerbate already existing or expected shortages and potentially slow the recovery process from the crisis as a consequence. Reduced access to high-quality VET could also hamper school-to-work transitions and increase the risk of youth being not in education, employment or training (NEET).

Some countries have put in place financial incentives to encourage firms to provide work-based learning opportunities to students during the COVID-19 crisis:

  • In Australia, the Supporting Apprentices and Trainees wage subsidy covers 50% of apprentices’ wages (capped at AUD 7 000 per quarter) for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with ongoing apprenticeships and for all firms re-engaging an apprentice displaced from an eligible SME. In addition, the Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements wage subsidy provides a similar subsidy to all firms taking on new apprentices from October 2020 onwards.

  • In France, firms hiring new apprentices in the period July 2020 – February 2021 can receive between EUR 5 000 and 8 000 (depending on the apprentice’s age) for the first year of training. All firms can benefit from this subsidy, although specific conditions apply to large firms.

  • In Germany, SMEs can receive government support when they conclude apprenticeship agreements for 2020‑2021. The amount of the subsidy equals EUR 2 000 per apprenticeship contract for firms that keep their apprenticeship numbers stable despite being affected by the crisis, and EUR 3 000 for firms that increase apprenticeship numbers or take on apprenticeships from insolvent firms.

However, such financial incentives alone are unlikely to solve the problem facing VET programmes. First, bringing new employers on board to provide work-based learning opportunities is likely to require more than solely financial support. For many firms, and especially SMEs, the sometimes large administrative burden associated with the provision of training opportunities to VET students poses a significant barrier (OECD, 2018[8]). In addition, many firms do not have the skills and experience to effectively train students –which was already an issue before the COVID-19 crisis-, limiting their capacity to provide high-quality training and to reap the benefits of providing work-based learning opportunities. The pandemic will likely exacerbate these capacity challenges, further reducing incentives to provide work-based learning opporunties. Second, financial incentives are not a sustainable solution for many countries in the longer term, especially when governments are facing severe budget pressures. Moreover, subsidies are often associated with deadweight loss, when they are used by employers who would have provided training opportunities even in the absence of the subsidy. Effective targeting of subsidies is key to avoiding such losses, but this might come at the cost of additional administrative complexities (OECD, 2017[9]).

In light of the barriers faced by employers, but also given the likely prolonged impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the labour market, additional actions are needed to safeguard the availability of high-quality practical learning opportunities in VET. The remainder of this brief discusses strategies to effectively deliver practical training in a school-based setting, including through increased use of innovative technologies such as simulators, VR and AR. Investments in such innovative technologies will not only benefit VET systems in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, but also have the potential to make VET more effective and resilient in the longer-term.

When the availability of work-based learning opportunities becomes more limited, schools play an even bigger role in the delivery of VET. A (partial) replacement of work-based VET with school-based VET provision can prove to be quite challenging, especially in those countries or sectors where the tradition of work-based learning is very strong and accounts for most of the practical component of VET programmes. In some countries school-based alternatives already exist, and these might need to be expanded. This is the case in countries such as Denmark and Norway, which provide alternative school-based VET in cases where upper-secondary VET students are unable to secure an apprenticeship (OECD, 2020[10]).

In cases where school-based training has to fill the gap created by a drop in work-based learning opportunities during the economic crisis, VET schools will need to redesign their curricula to better accommodate the practical component of VET.2 Existing courses might need to be adapted and other activities incorporated into practical lessons, so students can acquire the broad set of skills usually developed in the workplace. For instance, as workplaces provide a particularly effective environment in which to acquire soft skills (Musset, 2018[11]), the way that learning is organised in VET schools may need to be reformed in order to develop those skills through practical and collaborative activities in school workshops. In order to deliver these new or modified courses, VET schools might need to acquire machinery, electronic devices or new digital technologies, adapt physical spaces, and/or produce new teaching materials.

Moreover, VET schools are likely to require strong professional development systems for VET teachers, so they can update their knowledge and practice in key occupations and further develop the pedagogical skills needed to incorporate or strengthen soft skills development in their teaching. In addition, VET schools may want to hire VET teachers and trainers with relevant industry expertise in certain occupations to ensure they have the required human resources with specific practical expertise.

Governments could provide guidance and teaching resources to VET schools in order to facilitate the redesign of curricula and teaching methods. Such support and collaboration can assist VET schools to use innovative pedagogical approaches and implement new technologies that could contribute to high quality teaching and learning in school-based VET. In several countries innovation in school-based VET is being actively promoted and supported:

  • In Japan, the government plays an important role in promoting innovation and collaboration across technical high schools. For instance, in 2015 the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) launched an initiative called “super professional high schools”, providing special funding for 3‑5 years to 16 specialised technical high schools offering advanced courses in agriculture, technology, commerce, fisheries, domestic science, nursing and welfare. These technical high schools were chosen to develop programmes of co-operation with universities, research organisations and companies in order to train “frontier professionals” who are well equipped for jobs in tomorrow’s technology industry.

  • In Denmark, the government has established a national centre for IT in teaching (CIU) specialised in vocational education (CIU, 2020[12]). This centre provides information, a catalogue of digital resources, and guidance and support to schools when implementing new technologies in VET programmes. They also have a special six-month applied course for management staff in VET schools, specifically designed to strengthen their work in three aspects: management, education and industry 4.0 ,and learning data. Moreover, certain VET schools in Denmark operate as hubs for innovation in different subjects and industries. For instance, the Knowledge Center for Welfare Technology Western Denmark is a hub for innovation in the education and social sector (Videnscenter for Velfærdsteknologi, 2020[13]). The Danish government also funds two Knowledge Centres for Automation and Robotechnology, supporting VET schools in the use of technology to prepare students for industrial automation (Videnscenter for Automation og Robotteknologi (Nord), 2020[14]; Videnscenter for Automation og Robotteknologi (South), 2020[15]).

VET schools will need to co-operate closely with social partners and build strong links with industry. This collaboration allows for the development of up-to-date and relevant school-based VET provision that can effectively replace or complement work-based learning and provide relevant practical and soft skill development opportunities. With this goal in mind, the establishment of school networks and partnerships with companies must be strengthened.

The health emergency and ensuing confinement measures have highlighted some of the benefits of digital technologies, such as remote working and learning (OECD, 2020[2]). In the medium term, it is likely that the COVID-19 crisis will accelerate the use of digital technologies both in the workplace and the education sector (Schleicher and Reimers, 2020[17]; OECD, 2019[18]).

While remote learning has offered some educational continuity during the pandemic when it comes to academic learning, this has been much less the case in VET due to the practical nature of much of the learning (OECD, 2020[19]). Nonetheless, emerging advanced technologies could play an important role in ensuring the continuity of practical learning in VET when work-based learning opportunities are scarce. The adoption of new technologies, such as simulators, VR and AR, can facilitate the delivery of practical learning in a school-based environment. These technologies allow students to develop vocational skills performing very specific tasks, such as operating heavy machinery, or learning how to repair a car engine, or testing chemical products in a laboratory. They provide safe environments where students can learn at their own pace.

New technologies can be integrated into online learning platforms and in face-to-face settings to develop key competences for learners of all ages. Such technologies can therefore provide alternatives and complement work-based learning and can help increase the under-developed distance learning opportunities in VET. For simulators, VR or AR to be effectively used in the classroom, it is critical that VET teachers possess strong digital skills. In this context, robust professional development programmes for VET teachers should ideally be put in place to support the use of these technologies and improve their online teaching skills.

As simulators, VR and AR become more affordable and teachers develop the skills to effectively use them in the classroom, their use could become widespread in education and training systems in the near future (Wentworth, 2018[20]). Estimates suggest that between 2019 and 2025, the global investment in education technologies (EdTech) will grow on average by 16.3% each year, multiplying by 2.5 in a 6-year period (HolonIQ, 2020[21]). A lot of the recent growth in EdTech was driven by investment in online learning tools and platforms, but investment in advanced technologies in the education industry, such as VR and AR, is likely to expand strongly in the coming years, with projections showing that this market is expected to grow sevenfold between 2018 and 2025 (HolonIQ, 2019[22]).

The COVID-19 crisis could further stimulate the adoption of these technologies by VET providers in light of the need to provide alternatives and complements to work-based learning. VR, AR and simulators are already being implemented in learning environments, including in VET:

  • According to a recent survey by the World Economic Forum, around 5% of teachers in schools in the United States and China, and 10% of teachers in the United Kingdom make use of simulation or VR applications in their teaching (World Economic Forum, 2016[23]).

  • A recent survey in the United Kingdom showed that 79% of further education (FE) institutions are already using VR or AR, but that more than half of them only use these technologies in one or two of their departments/faculties. Only a quarter of FE institutions using VR or AR use them in more than five departments (JISC, 2019[24]). Still the use of these technologies is found to be more widespread in FE institutions than in higher education. In the FE sector VR and AR solutions are used in subjects such as construction, computer science, engineering, sports and nutrition, arts, media studies, health and social care, and the hospitality sector.

  • Denmark has established Knowledge Centres to foster the use of advanced technologies in VET teaching. For example, the Knowledge Centre for Welfare Technology Western Denmark promotes the use of advanced digital technologies in VET schools by making teaching courses that incorporate VR available for different vocational subjects (Videnscenter for Velfærdsteknologi, 2020[13]). These courses include both theoretical and practical elements to support teaching and learning. One of the tools that they have been promoting is the use of VR for training in pedagogical assistant study programmes. As part of an ad-hoc survey carried out by this Knowledge Centre among 169 students from social and healthcare prorammes, two-thirds of students declared that VR is a good supplement to regular teaching and 43% of students even found learning outcomes to be better than in regular classes (Videnscenter for Velfærdsteknologi, 2020[25])

  • Various specialised companies have been working closely with education and training providers to develop and adopt new technologies in the classroom. Technology solutions have been developed for a range of fields of studies, including typical VET fields. For example, software developer EON has set up VR and AR solutions with applications to train students and employees in several industries, including applications for occupations in welding, plumbing, woodworking and metalworking among others (EON, 2020[26]). More specifically, EON has produced AR applications to train logistics employees in airline companies, and VR applications to train oil refinery operators in safety procedures. EON has established collaborations and produced VR applications for dozens of tertiary education institutions. Other specialised companies such as Electude and Labster Labs provide training to VET students making use of VR and simulators for the fields of automotive mechanics and medical sciences respectively (see Box 2 and Box 3).

The benefits of the use of innovative technologies go beyond the current COVID-19 crisis. These technologies have the potential to make VET systems more effective and resilient also in the longer-term. Given their unique characteristics, simulators, VR and AR offer several advantages when compared to traditional VET. Often VET students cannot access the latest available equipment, and this is especially the case in school-based VET systems. VR solutions can be updated regularly following the latest developments in industry, reducing costs related to investment in expensive equipment. Moreover, in certain cases spare parts or components are too expensive or unsafe, so in practice students cannot use them unless under supervision. In this regard, VR and simulators could also reduce wasteful expenditures in those occupations that make intensive use of materials or supplies, representing a greener cost-effective alternative. They also show important advantages in terms of economies of scale, allowing for their use in many different institutions. Moreover, the use of VR and AR also has numerous benefits for employers providing training, as these technologies can shorten the amount of time that new trainees need to spend on real equipment, which reduces the cost of training and therefore provides a cost-effective complement to traditional work-based learning.

Importantly, the use of new technologies can facilitate access to high-quality VET for socially disadvantaged students, and therefore forster social inclusion and inclusive growth. The economies of scale associated to VR, AR and simulators imply that these technologies can be used in a large number of VET schools and in different fields of study, which reduces the need for schools to invest in expensive equipment –which could be particularly challenging in schools in disadvantaged areas. Moreover, the use of digital technologies is associated with increased student motivation and engagement, leading to higher student retention rates in VET programmes and therefore contributing to equity in education (Khan, Ahmad and Malik, 2017[28]; Aarkrog et al., 2018[29]).

Even though these technologies may not be able to replace real life experience completely, especially since they do not facilitate the development of the soft skills that often come with workplace exposure; they are a valuable option for those students looking to develop occupational skills both in online and face-to-face VET programmes.

One of the key challenges constraining the widespread use of innovative technologies in the education sector is their high development cost. The financial risk may discourage software developers to resume production until global demand increases. Purchasing simulators, VR or AR solutions involves an important investment for VET institutions. For instance, the software developer EON offers AR/VR solutions from USD 1 500 to up to USD 150 000, depending on their complexity (EON, 2020[31]). Specialised equipment (VR headsets and hand sensors) can be as costly as USD 400 per kit (OCULUS, 2020[32]). Nonetheless, as previously mentioned, these technologies can also generate cost-savings, as they are easier and less costly to update than physical equipment. Moreover, their cost could be shared by several institutions, as the same software can be used by different VET providers. In order to accelerate the introduction of these technologies, governments should consider providing financial incentives to third parties to produce applications for different industries and occupations. Some countries have already started doing so:

  • In the United States, software developers in education technology (EdTech) are being encouraged to collaborate with VET schools and the private sector to develop applications for school education (US Department of Education, 2015[33]). The United States Department for Education established the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIRf) programme to enable small businesses to have access to funding so they can explore their potential and commercialise their technological solutions. The SBIR programme provides grants of up to USD 1.7 million to develop and evaluate commercially viable education technology products to improve student learning and teacher instruction (Small Business Innovation Research, 2020[34]).

  • In the United Kingdom, the government has committed an investment of GBP 33 million (USD 38 million) from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to support pioneering immersive technologies like VR and AR (HM Government, 2017[35]). The United Kingdom has set out a strategy to provide guidance and support to education providers and the technology industry to help boost the use of new technologies in education that can positively impact educational outcomes (UK Department for Education, 2019[36]). As part of this process the government expects to support the development of the EdTech business sector in the United Kingdom, so it can deliver high-quality products that meet the needs of educators.

  • China launched the Zhongguancun VR industrial park. This initiative promotes the application of VR in a range of sectors, including the education sector. Companies developing technological innovations that boost the development of the VR industry receive government subsidies for up to CNY 10  million (USD 1.45 million). By April 2017, more than 40  companies had been introduced to the park, engaged in the fields of VR hardware research and development (R&D), content creation, software development and industrial applications (China Daily, 2017[37]).

Software development could be fostered through public-private partnerships, and by building VET school associations and industry networks to share the costs. The role of industry experts remains crucial, as they could provide key insights during the software design and development process. Through their involvement, employers could also learn about the benefits of these technologies for industry as a tool for on-site training of current and new employees.

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Contact

Rodrigo TORRES (✉ rodrigo.torres@oecd.org)

Marieke VANDEWEYER (✉ marieke.vandeweyer@oecd.org)

Notes

← 1. These projections start from the assumption that renewed virus outbreaks remain contained, and that the prospect of a widely available vaccine towards the end of 2021 helps to support confidence.

← 2. Learning objectives in school-based VET programmes incorporate the development of occupational skills in classrooms or workshops, whereas in apprenticeship schemes or other programmes with intensive use of work-based learning, usually this practical component is mostly incorporated in the workplace.

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