The disconnect between education and skills training

Friday, 5 January 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Many employers in the country unlike before want more funding and more attention toward vocational education and training. This is in line with many of the surveys internationally that suggests that a shift would have widespread employer support given the shortage of job-ready people. 

Recently a survey of nearly 9,000 citizens in eight European countries reveals that, when forced to prioritise one area of education, only 17% chose higher education, compared with 30% who want more vocational education and training (VET). Thirty-nine per cent backed general schooling and 15% preschool.

Support for prioritising higher education was highest in Spain (30%) and Italy (23%), and lowest in Sweden (6%), Denmark and Germany (both 9%). This is despite the focus in recent decades on higher education expansion, most employers still care a lot about vocational education. In Sri Lanka despite all the talk about the importance of vocational education and of developing excellence across all occupations for the social and economic health of our society, we’ve made limited progress in the intervening years.


Unlike most European countries, Germany has some of the best apprenticeship programs, however in Germany there have been concerns that higher education is chipping away at the traditionally very strong vocational system. 

In Germany it is no longer the case that the apprenticeship and vocational system is attractive enough to compete with higher education. In 2014-15, for the first time in German history, there were more students than apprentices. Some apprenticeship positions have remained unfilled. There is now a push for further education colleges and new institutes of technology.

Sri Lanka

High levels of unskilled youth across the country has resulted in employers increasingly supporting vocational education. The “bumpy transition from school to work” – where a number of young people are unemployed or underemployed – could help to explain why more and more employers now want vocational education given top priority.

Many of our degrees have a low labour market value, while vocational programs are “underdeveloped” at upper secondary levels – all explaining strong support for more properly directed vocational spending. However young people are still more supportive of higher education. This could be because vocational training is still of low status and attempts to improve it had not worked. Therefore it is good to try to understand exactly which types of education the public value, rather than just looking at support for education spending as a whole.

However 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. Therefore it is 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.

This bias against vocational education is dysfunctional. It is destructive to our children. They should have the opportunity to be trained in whatever skills their natural gifts and preferences lead them to, rather than more or less condemning them to jobs they’ll find meaningless. To keep a young person with an affinity for motor mechanics or one of the trades from developing the skills to pursue this calling is destructive. It is also destructive to our society.

Students who don’t excel in traditional academic areas, or who have little interest in them, should not meet with disappointment or disapproval from parents and teachers. Because today many of the skills most needed to compete in the global market of the 21st century are technical skills that fall into the technical/vocational area. The absence of excellence in many technical and vocational fields is also costing us big time economically as a nation

New thinking

Universities in Sri Lanka have benefited enormously from the expansion of higher education, but this growth had reached a point where it could not continue with their traditional missions. Universities need further differentiation in the system to blur the boundaries between higher education and vocational education. This has already started to happen slowly, where there had been an increase of dual-study programs that combine academic and vocational learning. 

Due to pressure from employers, over the past three to four years Sri Lanka has established a number of new technical institutes offering short term courses, but they remain not well targeted and accepted and also still teach only a few thousand students with the required discipline, when the actual requirements are very different. Therefore I hope for the sake of our youth, 2018 marks the dawn of a brave new era.

(The writer is a HR Thought Leader.)