While vocational qualifications have continued to receive investment in recent years, they are often viewed as secondary to academic study. The recent government plans to introduce 'Tech Levels' to run alongside A-Levels will reinforce the importance of vocational qualifications and will create new pathways leading to recognised occupations such as engineering, computing or hospitality. With just under a million 16 to 24-year-olds out of work, the move will help equip young people with the recognised qualifications and practical experience they need for the world of work.
The increased focus on Apprenticeships is an indication alternative routes into work are being more widely accepted. In the last three months alone, 26,000 Apprenticeship vacancies have been listed in England, and they continue to be a real route to source talent. By providing more opportunities to undertake vocational training, the government is making it easier for those firms eager to up skill their employees to improve productivity and performance in the future.
The rationale from the government is simple: without a skilled workforce to develop new, improved products and processes, the UK will fall behind competitor countries which are doing just that.
Like the government, employers recognise when done well, Apprenticeships can help fill the skills gap in the UK. This is supported by research carried out by learndirect earlier this year which discovered more than a fifth of firms (21 per cent) employ apprentices, of which 32 per cent claim the training schemes were an effective way of addressing shortages in technical skills. The research also suggests supporting employees through higher qualifications might lead to improved productivity and performance at an organisational level.
Despite this, we found the majority of business leaders still lack the knowledge and understanding about vocational qualifications and therefore, do not understand the true value they provide to their business. In addition young people repeatedly tell us they don't know about the full range of vocational options available to them.
It is crucial we challenge this if skills shortages and youth unemployment are to be fully addressed. By focussing too much on academic excellence, we are in danger of missing out on using the strong talent out there in the UK labour market. More needs to be done to break down the barriers – whether they involve perception, quality or content – between academic and vocational if we are to provide opportunities to suit everyone.
Equalising the balance between academic and vocational route has long been called for but this needs to start at the heart of government. It was recently reported for every one minute spent discussing vocational learning Parliamentarians spent four minutes debating the academic route (City and Guilds, 2013). To help achieve a shift in this emphasis we recommend a national government-led campaign to promote the value of vocational education and training. We also want to see the new duty on schools to provide high quality information, advice and guidance to include the full range of vocational options, including Apprenticeships.
Achieving this will help convince more young people practical training is an excellent way for individuals to better themselves as well as making business leaders aware of the wealth of high quality vocational courses available. This will help see the rise in productivity the UK needs to emerge from the current economic downturn and improve the career opportunities of millions of people. It is important to ensure Apprenticeships are seen as a vital part in building today's modern economy, as much as they were in building the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages.
Sarah Jones is chief executive of learndirect, the nationwide e-teaching organisation