Skip to content

How to make vocational education fit for the future


Key points:

  • The fast-changing job market needs vocational programmes that provide skills for the future
  • More work-based learning experiences and greater employer engagement would aid skills development
  • Upskilling will grow in importance so greater focus is needed on making vocational training accessible to adults

As digitalisation and the green transition change labour markets around the world, vocational education and training can help get people ahead of the curve and support job growth. According to the just released 2023 edition of Education at a Glance, 45% of all upper secondary students are enrolled in vocational programmes across the OECD. This rises to more than two-thirds in some countries. We need to ensure that the training they get is relevant and connects them to the labour market.

The most successful programmes usually include some form of on-the-job training. This gives students crucial workplace experience where they can apply classroom theory, learn from co-workers, get feedback and find out whether they actually enjoy the role. However, not all vocational programmes offer learning in the workplace. In fact, on average less than half of learners in upper secondary vocational courses have substantial work-based learning experiences, according to OECD data. In several countries, such programmes are practically non-existent. Many experience little more than their classrooms. This is a missed opportunity for both learners and employers.

In a world where technologies increasingly stretch the limits of our imagination, vocational courses are only going to become more important. A wider array of education and skills-building programmes will be needed. Employers can take more responsibility for designing vocational courses to make them more effective and relevant. They should work with teachers, policymakers, and other stakeholders to provide guidance on what skills are needed, what content should be taught, and how learning should be assessed. This cooperation already happens in different forms – but not often enough and typically with a small group of employers only. For example, many countries have set up dedicated structures at the national, sectoral, regional and institutional level to engage relevant stakeholders in an effort to make the system more responsive to their needs.

Vocational courses can also be expanded and made more flexible. At the moment, just 12% of learners in upper-secondary vocational programmes are aged over 29. There is obviously room for that proportion to rise. Part of the solution is to make vocational courses more attractive and accessible to adults, who often have work and family responsibilities. A starting point would be creating more online and part-time learning opportunities. Modularisation, micro-credentials, and more personalised approaches to learning should also be considered. This will help adults learn at their own pace and develop their skills throughout their careers. Clearer information, guidance and support would also make a difference by incentivising learning and encouraging more adults to continue their education.

Another element to consider is the extension of pathways between vocational courses and other levels of education. At the moment, pathways do exist, but only a small proportion of graduates use them and continue to study or train throughout their careers. This needs to change if countries are to successfully respond to changing skill demands.

By tackling all these issues head-on, and expanding employer involvement and on-the-job learning experiences, vocational programmes will become even more effective. At the moment, OECD countries differ widely in how they design and deliver vocational programmes, with many different initiatives to build more effective systems. As more and better data and policy information is collected, countries will be able to compare and share best practice more efficiently. This will help ensure that vocational education and training is fit for the future.

This year’s Education at a Glance report provides a wealth of international data on vocational programmes to facilitate that process. In addition, the recent OECD report "Building future-ready VET systems2 highlights policies and practices to make vocational training more responsive, inclusive and innovative. The OECD’s ongoing International Vocational Education and Training Assessment initiative will also help fill knowledge gaps about the sector and help create stronger systems. Taken together, all this will ensure that countries can support learners to keep pace in a rapidly changing world and unlock potential across the OECD.

By Abel Schumann and Marieke Vandeweyer

Responsibility for the content of this article lies solely with its author - OCDE