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Article

The Economic Effect of Vocational Education on Student Outcomes  

Shaun M. Dougherty and Walter G. Ecton

As long as formal education has existed, there has been a clear connection between education and preparation for employment. In much of the world, formal educational systems have come to include vocational education and training (VET) as part of secondary education. In these spaces, individuals can receive continued training in general skills related to reading, writing, and mathematics while also pursuing specific skills in prescribed vocational or technical programs (e.g., skilled trades, culinary arts, information technology, health services). Across all countries and associated educational systems, a tension exists between whether to invest educational dollars in general versus specific skill development. On the one hand, general skills allow for transferability and likely support adaptability across workplace settings and in response to changes in employment conditions. On the other hand, secondary school completion is not universal, even in rich countries, and there are often large penalties or social costs to not completing secondary education. Furthermore, across countries of varying GDP levels, the question about how to best prepare individuals for entry into and success in the workforce is a persistent one. Evidence suggests that the payoff to investments in VET vary considerably, and that context and the characteristics of participants likely inform the expected returns to such investments. For instance, there is strong evidence across contexts that male participants in VET are likely to benefit in the short- to medium-term with respect to employment and earnings, and possibly also engage in less crime. Unresolved, however, is whether these payoffs persist in the longer term. In contrast, for women the estimated returns appear to be more context dependent. Some research shows reduced fertility and greater financial independence of women participating in VET programs in less-developed countries, but evidence is mixed in other settings. All evidence underscores that the payoff to VET is likely tied to the extent to which it adapts to contemporary economic needs, including extending the amount of total formal education that participants might otherwise receive.

Article

The Contribution of Vocational Education and Training to Innovation and Growth  

Uschi Backes-Gellner and Patrick Lehnert

Despite the common view that innovation requires academically educated workers, some countries that strongly emphasize vocational education and training (VET) in their education systems—such as Switzerland and Germany—are highly competitive internationally in terms of innovation. These countries have dual VET programs, that is, upper-secondary-level apprenticeship programs, that combine about three quarters of workplace training with about one quarter of vocational schooling, and design them in such a way that their graduates (i.e., dual apprenticeship-graduates) play crucial roles in innovation processes. Regular updates of VET curricula incorporate the latest technological developments into these curricula, thereby ensuring that dual apprenticeship-graduates possess up-to-date, high-level skills in their chosen occupation. This process allows these graduates to contribute to innovation in firms. Moreover, these graduates acquire broad sets of technical and soft skills that enhance their job mobility and flexibility. Therefore, conventional wisdom notwithstanding, dual apprenticeship-graduates in such countries not only have broad skill sets that accelerate innovation in firms, but also willingly participate in innovation because of their high flexibility and employability. Moreover, Switzerland and Germany have tertiary-level VET institutions that foster innovation. These are universities of applied sciences (UASs), which teach and conduct applied research, thereby helping build a bridge between different types of knowledge (vocational and academic). UAS students have prior vocational knowledge through their dual apprenticeship and acquire applied research skills from UAS professors who usually have both work experience and a doctoral degree from an academic university. Thus UAS graduates combine sound occupational knowledge with applied research knowledge inspired by input from the academic research frontier and from practical research and development (R & D) in firms. Firms employ UAS graduates with their knowledge combination as an important input for R & D. Consequently, regions with a UAS have higher levels of innovation than regions without one. This effect is particularly strong for regions outside major innovation centers and for regions with larger percentages of smaller firms.

Article

Business Cycles and Apprenticeships  

Samuel Muehlemann and Stefan Wolter

The economic reasons why firms engage in apprenticeship training are twofold. First, apprenticeship training is a potentially cost-effective strategy for filling a firm’s future vacancies, particularly if skilled labor on the external labor market is scarce. Second, apprentices can be cost-effective substitutes for other types of labor in the current production process. As current and expected business and labor market conditions determine a firm’s expected work volume and thus its future demand for skilled labor, they are potentially important drivers of a firm’s training decisions. Empirical studies have found that the business cycle affects apprenticeship markets. However, while the economic magnitude of these effects is moderate on average, there is substantial heterogeneity across countries, even among those that at first sight seem very similar in terms of their apprenticeship systems. Moreover, identification of business cycle effects is a difficult task. First, statistics on apprenticeship markets are often less developed than labor market statistics, making empirical analyses of demand and supply impossible in many cases. In particular, data about unfilled apprenticeship vacancies and unsuccessful applicants are paramount for assessing potential market failures and analyzing the extent to which business cycle fluctuations may amplify imbalances in apprenticeship markets. Second, the intensity of business cycle effects on apprenticeship markets is not completely exogenous, as governments typically undertake a variety of measures, which differ across countries and may change over time, to reduce the adverse effects of economic downturns on apprenticeship markets. During the economic crisis related to the COVID-19 global pandemic, many countries took unprecedented actions to support their economies in general and reacted swiftly to introduce measures such as the provision of financial subsidies for training firms or the establishment of apprenticeship task forces. As statistics on apprenticeship markets improve over time, such heterogeneity in policy measures should be exploited to improve our understanding of the business cycle and its relationship with apprenticeships.