Innovation in education

Vocational Education and Training


Opening remarks to the Informal Meeting of OECD Education Ministers on Vocational Education and Training, Copenhagen
by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General
Copenhagen, Denmark
22 January 2007

Dear Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you all to this Informal Ministerial Meeting on Vocational Education and Training. I would like to thank Minister Bertel Haarder and the Danish Government for organising and hosting it. What better place for this gathering than this country with the highest share of happy people in the world? While we are here to learn from each other about vocational education and training, I think we should use this opportunity to learn a thing or two from the Danes about how to be satisfied with our lives.

In my remarks today, I will focus on the importance of vocational training and education and highlight the OECD's role in developing policies and identifying best practices in these areas.

Vocational education and training (commonly known as VET) has always existed - children learned to farm and hunt from their parents long before schools, teachers and the labour market were invented. They learned these essential skills as apprentices - through watching and practising. Our job is to refashion this ancient role to fit the needs of the 21st century and this is precisely what we will focus on here today and tomorrow.  

Vocation education and training is not just the interest of Education Ministers - it also concerns your colleagues in labour, finance and economics ministries, because it is about providing the necessary skills for well-functioning, modern economies. In other words, VET is central to economic growth and development. We at the OECD put education and training into this broader economic context. The OECD Jobs Strategy, for example, emphasises the need of education and training systems to respond to changing labour market requirements.

Another issue we focus on at the OECD is international benchmarking and cross country comparisons. There is a huge variation in VET across countries - vocational training takes place mainly in schools and colleges in some countries, and in the workplace in others. Some countries - like the United States - rely heavily on training and retraining in colleges catering for adults, others - like Denmark- make more use of apprenticeships.

But while there is no one-size-fits-all model for vocational education and training, globalisation is putting pressure on these nationally distinctive features of VET systems and labour markets. We can respond to these pressures most effectively if we have a good understanding of our commonalities and differences.  We at the OECD stand ready to help improve this understanding - and this meeting is an important contribution to this process.

Key issues for vocational education and training

I would now like to briefly mention some of the key issues related to vocational education and training - namely the service economy; migration and inclusion; boundaries between VET, general education and work; and the status of VET.

VET in the service of the economy.  Getting the VET system right is critical - a labour force without the right skills will not succeed against tough global competition. And there can be weaknesses we should be careful to avoid - training can be offered in skills no longer needed in modern economies; or it can be delivered by trainers whose skills may be inappropriate; or in some cases relevant tests and objective standards for good VET may be missing.  The big challenge is to make VET more responsive to changing labour market requirements.  Unfortunately, employers are not always interested in co-operating with VET institutions.

Blurring the boundaries between VET and general education.  Perhaps our terminology is part of the problem - instead of VET we might be better off talking about education and training for work and also about learning by doing. All schools, colleges and universities need to provide education and training for work - some of it very general and some more specific. They also need to offer more learning by doing - which should be particularly suited to acquiring  the skills that employers expect and ask for - working in teams, creativity, communication and social skills.

...  and between learning and work.  There is also a need to soften the boundaries between learning and work itself. We need to determine how the two can be combined throughout life, both at the workplace, as well as outside, both during and after working hours, but always with the necessary support and participation of employers.

 Migration. I have highlighted migration as one of my priorities as Secretary-General. More than 15 per cent of 15-year olds in OECD countries have at least one parent who is foreign-born, and VET systems should play the same role in smoothing the transition from school to the labour market for this population as they do for other children. Yet, our country reviews on labour market integration show that in a number of countries, VET systems are just not delivering for the children of immigrants. Thus, VET systems as a transition mechanism from school to work have to adapt to the growing share of young people with a migration background.

VET and inclusion.  Another disadvantaged group to which we are giving particular attention is those with learning difficulties and disabilities. There is a universe of difference between the quality of life of an unemployed person with special needs, often facing poverty and social isolation and that of the same person working, contributing and engaging.   Targeted vocational training to prepare for work in the real world make all the  difference.

Status.  VET has a status problem.  It did not start that way -- the hunters who learned their skills from a parent had high status.  The problem is that formal academic education has elbowed VET out of the way, and has cornered all prestige job-specific training.  We do not hear Harvard Law School in the U.S., or the École National d'Administration in France describing what they do as vocational training -- although they are vocational training. And we do not hear elites in any country expressing a wish that their own children should undertake vocational training.  So, by exclusion, VET gets defined as tracks for the also-rans.  Moreover, our Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has generated clear evidence that very early separation into academic and vocational tracks - in early adolescence - is undesirable and sometimes leads to an irreversible tiering of opportunities later in life.


These are some of the challenges! So, where do we look for solutions?  And how can the OECD help?

Better comparisons of VET systems. We are already - through the OECD review of school-to-work transition - looking at how vocational education supports the integration of the young people into the labour market, but we need to go beyond this. We need better data on how VET is structured in different countries.  We speak loosely about countries with a "dual system" or with "school-based VET", but we need to be much more precise. We also need some strong models of where VET systems and the labour market are working well to meet the needs of students and employers, the so-called "best practices".

Better comparative measures of workforce skills. We also need a clear benchmark of the current skills of the labour force and a better understanding of how these skills are acquired, enhanced or lost.  We in the OECD are working to launch a cross-country survey on adult skills, called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). It will cover general competencies - things like literacy and numeracy - and how these skills are used at the workplace.

Looking forward, we need a vision of future skills needs.  I say a vision not a forecast.  One of the biggest challenges in designing education systems is that we cannot be that certain about the shape of national economies in 20 to 30 years.  Straight-line extrapolation is notoriously fallible.  Where skills requirements are volatile, unpredictable or firm-specific, continuous education and training are the obvious answer. 

Thank you for your attention. This is an issue of great interest to me and to the OECD and I look forward to learning about the outcome of the meeting and building on it together.

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