Education is often taken as one of the keystones for the development of an economy – indeed, it’s an integral part of the NEM and mentioned in the 10MP as one of the key factors in pushing us over into high-income territory. On a more personal level, there’s plenty of research to show that having a tertiary education has a highly significant positive impact on an individual’s potential lifetime earnings.
But a high income economy is not just one that is defined by high-value added activities run by brainy PhDs in lab coats – someone still has to take out the garbage, cut the grass, drive the buses and taxis, and serve the coffee. For some of these occupations, nothing more is required than good communication skills, ambition, and an aptitude for hard work – retail sales assistants for instance.
But for others, such as doing the dirty work of making sure our trains (what there are of them) actually run on time, servicing the 19.3 million cars on Malaysian roads and working our factories, technical knowledge and skills are of greater value than academic training. Not everyone has the aptitude and inclination to gain a university degree – nor should it be a strike against them if they do not. I’ve met my share of high-degree holders who aren’t as effective or productive as someone who came up the hard way.
So I was happy to see this article featured in last week’s The Economist:
Vocational training: Too narrow, too soon?
America’s misplaced disdain for vocational education
SARAH ZANDER and Ashley Jacobsen are like many teenage girls. Sarah likes soccer. Ashley was captain of her school’s team of cheerleaders this year. They are also earning good money as nursing assistants at a retirement home. Sarah plans to become a registered nurse. Ashley may become a pharmacologist. Their futures look sunny. Yet both are products of what is arguably America’s most sneered-at high-school programme: vocational training.
Vocational education has been so disparaged that its few advocates have resorted to giving it a new name: “career and technical education” (CTE). Academic courses that prepare students for getting into universities, by contrast, are seen as the key to higher wages and global prowess. Last month the National Governors Association proposed standards to make students “college and career ready”. But a few states, districts and think-tanks favour a radical notion. In America’s quest to raise wages and compete internationally, CTE may be not a hindrance but a help.
America has a unique disdain for vocational education. It has supported such training since 1917; money now comes from the Perkins Act, which is reauthorised every six years. However, many Americans hate the idea of schoolchildren setting out on career paths—such predetermination, they think, threatens the ethos of opportunity. As wages have risen for those with college degrees, scepticism of CTE has grown too. By 2005 only one-fifth of high-school students specialised in an industry, compared with one-third in 1982. The share of 17-year-olds aspiring to four-year college, meanwhile, reached 69% in 2003, double the level of 1981. But the fact remains that not every student will graduate from university. This may make politicians uncomfortable, but it is not catastrophic. The Council of Economic Advisers projects faster-growing demand for those with a two-year technical-college degree, or specific training, than for those with a full university degree.
A growing chorus of state and local leaders argues that CTE can help. Rather than pit training against university preparation, they are trying to integrate the two. CTE students may go on to university, to training or directly into work. The Perkins Act nudges such efforts forward, but the big shove comes from beyond Washington. Wisconsin’s governor, Jim Doyle, has expanded his state’s youth apprentice programme, which provides high-school students such as Sarah and Ashley with jobs. Academic courses are complemented by those at technical colleges.
The most successful model, however, may be “career academies”. Started in Philadelphia in 1969, mimicked in California in the 1980s and supported elsewhere by Sandy Weil’s National Academy Foundation, these small schools combine academic and technical curriculums and give students work experience. When properly implemented, career academies can produce striking results. The non-partisan MDRC found that college attainment did not rise relative to a control group, but career academies did boost students’ earnings by 11%. Among boys, earnings were 17% higher. Young men were more likely to be married.
The challenge is to scale up such programmes. Within a sprawling high school in Chicago, Kevin Rutter runs a small finance academy, teaching students about markets, accounting and personal finance, welcoming executives and helping students find internships. Chicago’s schools system this year said it would revamp its CTE system to mimic academies such as Mr Rutter’s, merging academic work with training for growth industries. California has pursued similar reforms; CTE’s main champion is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Mr Obama should presumably push along such efforts. Last year he asked every American to commit to at least one year of training, whether through a “community college or four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship”. However, the governors’ new standards still emphasise academic skills. The education secretary’s plan to reauthorise No Child Left Behind barely mentions CTE. Advocates hope this will change.
In the meantime, a bold new programme is inching forward. The National Centre on Education and the Economy (NCEE), a think-tank, is developing a test that students may take in their second year of high school. On passing, they could proceed to a community college or stay in high school to apply to a four-year university. Those who fail would take extra courses to help them pass. A pilot programme, supported by the Gates Foundation, will begin in eight states next year. Some parents are already outraged by the imagined spectre of tracking. Marc Tucker, who leads the NCEE, argues that a path to a community college might keep students engaged. Such a system would provide students with more opportunity, not less.
Malaysia’s level of university enrolment is of course much worse than the US, at somewhat less than half their level. But that just underscores the need for more technical training avenues, not less. Raising tertiary level enrolment will be a generational effort involving not just the students but their parents as well.
The ten years to 2020 won’t be sufficient time to raise average student attainments to pass university entrance requirements, nor will there be sufficient funds or human resources to open and staff the expansion in facilities that increased enrolment implies. Building community and vocational colleges would be both faster and cheaper, while at the same time making sure that those of lesser academic attainments have a chance at gaining job-enhancing skills and their income-generating ability.
On those two counts (capacity and capability), there’s a good argument for increasing the emphasis on technical and vocational education. I continue to be concerned that as we drive toward high-income status, those with less marketable skills and knowledge will be left behind, making Malaysia’s income inequality situation worse than its already bad state. Providing for a technical education path is one way to level the playing field in the labour market.