College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

The False Choice Between Vocational and Academic Education

By Marc Tucker — July 20, 2017 12 min read
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Vocational education is having something of a resurgence these days, after enduring years out in the cold. The idea that seems to be striking the strongest spark is apprenticeship, having students spend a substantial amount of time in real workplaces learning from highly skilled workers how to do the work they do.

But, a few days ago, David Leonhardt, the New York Times columnist, wrote a piece in which he says hey, whoa, wait a minute; advocates “have not thought through the downsides [of apprenticeship].” Leonhardt had read a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Eric Hanushek, reporting on research he had done with Ludger Woessmann and several other colleagues. “The largest problem of skills in the U.S. today isn’t a shortage of young workers with specific competencies,” Hanushek says in the WSJ article. “Instead it is a need for more general cognitive skills that give workers the ability to adapt to new circumstances and new jobs.”

In a piece in the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Chalkboard, Hanushek and Woessman say, “While some countries, particularly in Europe, stress vocational education that develops specific job-related skills, others, like the U.S., emphasize general education that provides students with broad knowledge and basic skills.” This, in their view, is enlightened policy. They prove it with data that purports to show that, when students in high school vocational education are compared with students in high school general education, the former are employed in larger numbers earlier in their working careers, but, as they age, begin leaving the labor market earlier than those with general education and over their whole working life, make less money. This, they say, is true, even when the students are matched on tested skills, family background and years of education.

Their conclusion: “If people receive skills that are finely tuned to current employment opportunities, they might not be particularly prepared to adjust to new technologies. Thus, with higher growth rates and faster technological and structural change, people with vocational training may be more likely to be out of the labor market later in the cycle.”

But this analysis assumes that policy makers need to choose between general education and apprenticeship. That is an untenable assumption in today’s world. A strong academic education and vocational education that equips students with sophisticated skills are not and should not be thought of as mutually exclusive. Indeed, these two kinds of education, combined in a “T-shaped curriculum” that I have written about in the past, are absolutely vital to assure young people the best chance of life-long, gainful employment in a world of advancing automation and global integration. Hanushek and Woessmann are correct in saying that countries with strong apprenticeship programs provide many young people with good jobs and entry to strong careers much earlier in life than countries without them. Why not couple that advantage to the kind of general education that will makes it possible for the same young people to wiggle and weave later on as technology and work organization change?

Until a few years ago, Denmark, by common consent among experts in the field, had one of the best vocational education and training systems in the world. Economists agreed that Denmark’s system of business and technical colleges had created one of the most highly skilled middle-level workforces in the world, a workforce that enabled Denmark to run one of the most successful high-value-added niche economies in the world, with a very high standard of living that was more evenly distributed than anywhere on the face of the globe. Denmark’s vocational education system won the very prestigious Bertelsmann Prize in 1999.

Later, when the German apprenticeship system ran into mounting problems from which it has not since recovered, the German government turned to Roland Oesterlund, the head of the Danish vocational system, for advice, a good indication of the admiration the Germans had for the Danish accomplishment. But then, just a few years later, a new Danish government was formed. The new Prime Minister, who had a strong personal interest in economic development, formed a task force on the subject that came to the same facile conclusion that Hanushek, Woessmann and their colleagues came to: The future of Denmark lay in high-tech industries that would require broad learning, great creativity, agility and intellectual prowess, of the kind that only a university education could provide. Up to that point, parents had been proud to enroll their children in vocational education, because their world was populated with plenty of graduates of that system who had done very well for themselves. Now they saw it as a dead end. The Danish system has never recovered and no favor was done to the Danish economy.

Hanushek and Woessmann tell us that the justification for an apprenticeship system most supporters make is that it provides a smooth transition for young people into the workforce. Yes, it does do that, but that is not the primary reason to support it. Since the Middle Ages, apprenticeship has been an important engine of economic growth and development. No one has yet developed a more powerful and effective way for novices to learn a craft at a high level of skill. Modern economies, especially economies based on high-value-added manufacturing and services, cannot function effectively without a large part of their workforce engaged in highly skilled work that is not done in an office by someone sitting at a desk. That will be true for a long time to come.

About three years ago, a friend was kind enough to arrange a side meeting for us at Interlochen, the scene of the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum. The people we met with were very senior executives at some of Switzerland’s major global firms, all companies headquartered in Switzerland. I asked them why they were so supportive of Switzerland’s vocational education system and, especially, their apprenticeship system. The executives told us that a couple of decades earlier, top Swiss executives had gathered to consider the country’s economic future. They left that meeting in a strong consensus that they wanted Switzerland to be a rich country but they wanted that prosperity to be broadly shared. They were, they said, clear about what it would take to do that. They could not compete on the price of their labor. Doing that would drive wages and the Swiss standard of living down. They would have to capitalize on their reputation for fine craftsmanship and compete on the skills of their people, by offering the world high-value-added goods and services. They would have to be number one, two or three, they said, in every industry in which they chose to compete. They were certain that the key to that would be a primary and secondary education system that was among the best in the world and, at the same time, a vocational education system second to none.

The most remarkable thing they said was that they decided to prevail upon the government to limit the growth of the universities in Switzerland and of the academic track in the high schools that prepared students for the universities. The route into most occupations in Switzerland would be through the vocational education system, not the academic track, and the apprenticeship system would be the backbone of the vocational education system.

The leaders of these firms prevailed. Seventy percent of high school students are enrolled in the vocational system, and only 30 percent in the academic university prep system. Switzerland is home to two universities that many Europeans call the Harvard of Europe and the MIT of Europe, but many occupations prepared for in our university system are prepared for in the Swiss vocational system. In their most recent reforms, the Swiss decided to open up more universities, but they are not academic universities. They are called Universities of Applied Science and they are part of the vocational education system. So the Swiss have developed a system of vocational education that is built on a strong base of high academic skills and includes routes for students in the vocational education system that allow them to go right to work from high school, or right into an applied university or an academic university from their vocational education program if they take the right courses.

Why did the Swiss do this? It was not just because they were interested in producing a smooth transition to work from high school for future chefs, manufacturing workers and carpenters. It is because they saw these measures as an essential tool to build a modern economy that would make Swiss firms among the world’s most successful companies and to grow the income of the Swiss people at every level of their economy.

These were very modern leaders. The apprenticeship system might have its roots in medieval guilds, but these executives knew that things were changing. They knew that a narrow training for the jobs that existed two or three decades ago would not be good for Swiss workers or Swiss employers. They knew that if Swiss firms and Swiss workers were going to have a bright future, the education and training of their apprentices would have to do two things very, very well. It would have to give them a high level of skill for their first job and, at the same time, a broad and deep education that would enable them to shape shift with the economy as technology changed jobs and work organization at ever greater speed. I am not making this up. The Swiss executives said this while patiently explaining their great interest in the continued health of their apprenticeship system.

Hanushek, Woessmann and their associates framed their study as if nothing had changed in the world of vocational education, apprenticeship and general education in the last 50 years. Fifty years ago, the Europeans had a system of secondary education that was rigidly segregated by social class. Apprentices focused on narrowly defined jobs and the school portion of the training was itself focused on only the skills needed for the first job. One could easily imagine that the people who designed the training assumed that the student would be a journeyman in the same trade for the rest of his life. The Germans only reviewed their occupational standards every 10 years. The wheels of change were expected to turn slowly. The assumption that the typical journeyman would go no further than becoming a master in the field in which he had trained was probably right for most apprentices. And so was the assumption that a university- educated professional would work longer and make more money over a full lifetime.

Forty years ago, the typical American worker had more years of education than workers in all of the advanced industrial economies. That high level of general education did in fact make the American worker more agile, more able to adjust quickly to changes in technology and work organization than workers in many other countries.

That was 40 years ago. It is not today. Today the average American worker is among the least well-educated in the industrialized world, according to the OECD. The typical high school graduate leaves high school today with only 7th or 8th grade mathematics and English literacy. In the U.S., nearly 6 in 10 young adults fail to secure a college degree or industry-recognized qualification of any kind by the time they are 30. Yet Hanushek and Woessmann would have us believe that these young people are better off than a Swiss high school graduate who is working in advanced manufacturing at ABB, building precision high-speed turbines for ocean-going vessels, using advanced mathematics and strong engineering skills and possessed of a full set of the non-cognitive skills needed to advance up the ranks at one of the world’s leading engineering firms.

No service is done to the entire generation of young people in the U.S. with lower levels of education and skill than their international counterparts by claiming that this research proves the superiority of general education over apprenticeship in the modern world. The American model has succeeded in producing a generation of young people who are poorly educated and largely lacking in the kinds of skills they desperately need to succeed in an economy that provides less and less to people with neither strong academics nor strong technical skills.

The numbers for the U.S. are reversed in Switzerland, where more than 70 percent of young people have attained either a postsecondary degree or completed vocational education with a credential. There is a world of difference in these numbers and those differences do not favor the United States. They spell the difference between struggling economically one’s whole life for those who lack a qualification and living well for those who have one. And they spell the difference between a high-wealth economy with broad participation in economic growth in one case and a dual economy with a growing gulf between the rich and poor in the other. Far from merely providing a smooth school-to-work transition, the case for apprenticeship is that it provides vital skills to individuals in our complex economies and a balanced workforce for employers in advanced economies. That is non-trivial.

Hanushek and Woessmann are right in saying that advancing automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, combined with changing work organization will require all of the advanced countries to provide a much better general education for everyone than was necessary in a simpler world. But that is not instead of providing a strong grounding in the technical skills that students will need to land their first job. They need that now more than ever. That’s because the jobs available for graduates with only middle school literacy are disappearing fast, the victims of rapidly advancing automation. Increasingly, the jobs that are left are out of reach for most high school graduates, both because they lack the necessary general education and because they lack the technical skills, are the entry-level jobs that pay above the poverty level. When employers could count on keeping employees for decades, many were willing to invest in their skills. But the loyalty of firms to employees and employees to firms has eroded greatly. Firms are not willing to train young people who will take their skills to a competitor who has made no such investment and is just interested in poaching. The advance of the gig economy, in which many employers contract with their workers so they do not have to pay benefits or social security, amplifies these trends. If the employer does not give a young person the skills that apprenticeship systems provide, and government does not do it, then who will do it?

Hanushek and Woessmann ask policy makers to choose between general education and apprenticeship. That’s wrong. We need both now, more than ever.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.