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Transforming education through vocational training

Published:Friday | June 16, 2017 | 12:00 AM
NEO Youth show statistics on youth unemployment development at the launch of the NEO Jamaica Project at King’s House in June 2016.

Vocational Education and Training (VET) has long been recognised in Jamaica as having a significant role to play in the creation of a highly skilled, productive, and competitive workforce. It is seen as the main vehicle through which the pervasive problem of youth unemployment can be adequately addressed. But it can be argued that we are still a long way off from having a strong and effective VET system.

The New Employment Opportunities (NEO) for Youth in Jamaica project has found sufficient evidence in a series of technical proposals on youth employment and employability that solidifies the view that a strong VET system, inclusive of a national apprenticeship system, has merit.

Countries with very strong VET systems, such as Australia, Finland, and the Netherlands share two distinct characteristics:

They have special youth policies: they see the younger generations as important to support, protect, and engage with as an investment in future prosperity.

In partnership with employers and unions, they educate between 40 per cent and 75 per cent of their young people in a vocational education system that links education and labour market needs and includes substantial learning in the workplace.

These countries have recognised that the way learning takes place must change if we are to make youth employable. Instead of focusing solely on passing exams, the goal of education and training must be employability and not necessarily a college degree.

In these countries as well, there has been experimentation, for example, inviting select employers to help design a curriculum to facilitate transition to work in their respective establishments. This is a feature of strong VET systems the state is proactive.

Other key factors that comprise a strong VET system include:

The system is formed through public-private partnerships between the state, schools, employers, and labour unions.

Employers have a major role, usually codified in a legal framework, in defining the qualifications required for clusters of occupations in their sectors of the economy.

With support from organisations representing their occupational sector, employers take responsibility for building curriculum and developing and carrying out assessments.

A vibrant national apprenticeship system, written into law, is central to the success of the VET system, where youth "learn to work," starting at age 15, before they start the transition to the world of work.

This apprenticeship system allows for the mentoring and training of youth to encourage their development into the adult employees that the labour force demands. Special emphasis is placed on at-risk youth, where specific incentives are provided to employers to hire or take on at-risk youth as apprentices and provide either youth guarantees, where youth are employed or mutual obligation agreements, where at-risk youth receive income support if they meet their commitments, as agreed in the contract among the state, the employer, and the youth.

As far as the benefits of a strong VET system are concerned, these redound overwhelmingly towards the lowering of youth unemployment. Countries that have implemented the VET strategy have much higher secondary-completion rates and have experienced greater success in keeping youth unemployment low than in non-apprenticeship or weak VET countries. These countries have also succeeded in transitioning young qualified persons with skills that have been certified or recognised in the labour market.

The policy recommendations outlined in the NEO proposals speak specifically to what must be done in order for Jamaica's education and training system to successfully transform into a strong VET system. These include:

Revising the national youth policy and other relevant policies with a youth emphasis to ensure synergies. Merely cross-referencing policies without implementing measures that are mutually reinforcing undermines youth unemployment and related variables at the impact and outcome levels.

Revising the education policy to provide entrants to the labour market with the "right" skills, including soft skills, which are increasingly being demanded by employers. There must also be greater emphasis on soft or socio-emotional skills in the upper-secondary curriculum.

Designing a targeted programme for underserved and unattached (vulnerable youth) that incentivises participation through youth guarantees, preferably, or mutual obligation policies whereby youth are provided with employment or income support, respectively, if they complete their training programmes or apprenticeships.

These policy recommendations are just part of a multifaceted approach towards the development of a strong VET system, and, by extension, the significant lowering of youth unemployment. Other recommendations focusing on legislative, research and analysis, governance and capacity building will be discussed in subsequent articles.

- New Employment Opportunities for Youth in Jamaica is part of the regional programme, New Employment Opportunities for Youth (NEO). NEO seeks to improve the human capital quality and employability of one million vulnerable youth across Latin America and the Caribbean by 2022.