Will vocational learning provide the ‘golden formula’ in an evolving Wales?

Posted on by karen.smith

Arwyn Watkins Chief Executive NTfW

The education and skills landscape of Wales is evolving constantly. In the not too distant past, we saw a steady expansion of the Higher Education sector with parents and policymakers alike placing ever greater emphasis upon the ‘golden formula’ of three A levels and a university degree.

Fierce competition for jobs between highly qualified graduates has frequently made the headlines, as an increasing number struggle to find employment despite obtaining degrees.

Therefore, I was not surprised that a recent report from the Institute of Public Policy Research, published to coincide with VQ (Vocational Qualification) Day 2014, revealed that many of the jobs expected to drive economic growth and mobility in the next decade will not necessarily require this traditional academic education pathway. Instead the vocational pathway, which includes apprenticeships and on the job training, is set to open doors to an endless array of careers.

The report investigates the changing landscape of the workforce. By 2022, it predicts there will be an additional 3.6 million UK job vacancies in mid-skilled occupations, which employ high numbers of people with vocational qualifications. Additionally, the skills required for nine out of the 10 most in-demand occupations of the future can be attained by completing vocational qualifications.

In response to the report Jan Hodges, chief executive of the independent education charity the Edge Foundation, said: “This research clearly demonstrates that we must continue to support high quality vocational education if we are to meet the needs of our future economy.
We also need to raise the esteem of vocational qualifications and celebrate the success of people completing them.”

That’s music to the ears of NTfW members across Wales who have been calling for parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications for as long as I can remember. Technical, practical and vocational education has a unique role to play in the future jobs market, giving learners the competitive edge by providing them with the skills, experience and clear progression routes they need to succeed.

Unfortunately, research carried out by the Edge Foundation earlier this year found that many vocational learners felt their schools and parents did not support their decision to pursue a vocational pathway. Many felt they would have received greater support had they followed the university route.

Evidently, there is a perception issue when it comes to a vocational pathway. It has become viewed by some as a second tier option. As education and skills professionals, our job is to ensure that all learners are fully aware of and understand the options open to them. We must promote the sheer variety and quality of options available in communities across Wales.

One of our biggest challenges is ensuring that schools tell young people and parents about these opportunities. Sadly, this does not happen as often as it should, which is partly because degree educated teachers lack the knowledge and up to date information about vocational options and careers.

To spread the message effectively we need to tell stories of real people and real businesses who got where they wanted to be via the vocational route to success. The SkillsCymru events in Llandudno (October 8-9) and Cardiff (October 22-33) will provide the perfect platform for us to deliver that message.

I am strongly recommending that my fellow NTfW members attend these events with a network of their employers so that the full range of career opportunities that exist are made known. It’s also important that they take with them existing apprentices, ideally those who have a link to the schools and communities that are attending, so that they can be the ambassadors. Believe me, they can and will communicate their chosen pathway more effectively than we can.

VQ Day proved to be a very busy day for reports, as the UK Commission for Employment and Skills’ latest Employer Skills Survey was also published. It revealed that whilst the number of job vacancies in Wales has risen by 14% – with employers having 3,000 more vacancies at the time of interview in 2013 compared to 2011 – the number of employers having difficulty filling vacancies due to skills shortages rose to 20% from 18% in 2011.

This prompted Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, Ken Skates, to call on employers and individuals “to take responsible action on skills” to ensure that Welsh employers find recruits with the right skills for the job.

A much greater level of investment in the right skills was needed from both employers and individuals, with support from the Welsh Government, to avoid the Welsh economy to losing out, he said. Next month he launches a Skills Implementation Plan, which will set out the actions the government intends to take to develop the Welsh workforce and increase levels of skills investment.

As NTfW members provide a key link in the chain between the Welsh Government and employers and learners, we await this plan with great interest. We all recognise that big changes are on the horizon in terms of the way future vocational learning is funded in Wales. Let’s hope this document sets out a clear pathway for us all.

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