In the early 19th century, the philosopher, academic and linguist, Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote at letter to the King of Prussia stating, “There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without. People obviously cannot be good craft workers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens. If this basis is laid through schooling, vocational skills are easily acquired later on, and a person is always free to move from one occupation to another, as so often happens in life."
Using Humboldt’s philosophy, which became known as the Humboldtian model of higher education, many countries over the following centuries began to adopt a system, which encouraged or integrated vocational training as a mandatory part of secondary education rather than dedicating all classes towards the pursuit of academia, and while this idea remained consistent in some countries, the mid-20th century saw a general movement away from vocational training in pursuit of greater wealth and status.
From the mid-1940’s, the baby boomer generation witnessed a period of sustained economic growth that encouraged various socioeconomic changes, in particular the emergence of the middle classes and an expansion of corporate culture. In the years that followed, the general emphasis for gaining a career within the competitive, but lucrative corporate structure saw a significant increase in university applicants, while vocational careers began to suffer from the fatuous image of being undesirable in modern society.
To quote Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University, “we live in a society that places a high value on the professions and white-collar jobs, and that still considers blue-collar work lower status. It’s no surprise that parents want their children to pursue careers that will maintain or increase their status. In high socio-economic communities this is even more evident.”
While this isn’t the reaction reached in all countries, the subsequent fracture in ideas about careers and education created divergent paths for those that maintained vocational training, and those that didn’t.
While considered unorthodox by some, the World Economic Forum ranked Finland as the country with the best educational system in the world, as part of its Global Competitiveness Report (2016). As part of its curriculum, children are rarely set homework, all children are taught in the same classrooms, a fact that has led to the smallest difference between the weakest and the strongest students in the world, and there is only one standardised test, which is taken when children are 16. In addition to this, 43% of high-school students go to vocational schools, something that has contributed towards lower levels of youth unemployment and a balance in the employment market.
When considering the social impact of either over or under supply of a particular skill set, the correction will often lead to foreign labour migration in order to meet demand. Good examples can be found in the African continent where there is an oversupply of social science and business graduates but an undersupply of engineers, scientists and technicians, leading to an increase in expats to fill in demand, whereas in the United Kingdom, the shortage of vocational workers in the late 90’s saw an influx of vocationally qualified workers from countries such as Poland who were more than happy to make up the supply. Of course, Europe wasn’t the only region to feel the effects of a vocational imbalance.
Prior US President Obama’s “manufacturing skill speech”, made in 2011 addressed the importance of vocational skill development as a key factor in strengthening competitiveness and growth within the United States. Just four years later, Nicholas Wyman would write for Forbes, ”The U.S. economy has changed. The manufacturing sector is growing and modernizing, creating a wealth of challenging, well-paying, highly skilled jobs for those with the skills to do them. The demise of vocational education at the high school level has bred a skills shortage in manufacturing today, and with it a wealth of career opportunities for both under-employed college grads and high school students looking for direct pathways to interesting, lucrative careers. Many of the jobs in manufacturing are attainable through apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and vocational programs offered at community colleges. They don’t require expensive, four-year degrees for which many students are not suited.”
With more and more initiatives being launched and embraced by countries around the world, vocational careers are making a comeback, whether thanks to government initiatives, a change in public perception, or indeed the demand for skilled labourers in the job market.
With its roots going back to 1946, WorldSkills International has served as a leading organisation for promoting vocational training, career development and international cooperation and will be launching its 44th WorldSkills Competition in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in October.
Speaking on behalf of Doka Middle East & Africa, Regional Director Peter Vogel said, “A company is only as successful as the skills of its employees. Doka is an excellent example of a company whose success has only been possible thanks to the coordinated efforts of a highly diverse work pool. Since its establishment over 150 years ago, Doka has always prioritised in house vocational training as an investment, which has yielded a return for both employees and the company alike. As such, we’re delighted to play an integrated role in this year’s WorldSkills Competition, and encourage the next generation to take an active interest in building the infrastructure and cities of tomorrow.”
Certainly this year’s WorldSkills Competition will no doubt be a popular event – held under the patronage of His Highness General Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, it is expected to attract and audience of 200,000 and will host participants from 77 nations. With this year’s competitions including automobile technology, carpentry and electronics, it is the intention of WorldSkills to demonstrate the exciting possibilities for youth in fields that don’t require a three-year degree and that will provide a highly fulfilling career for life.