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Technical Education Competes with University: Study

WASHINGTON, Jul 11 2013 (IPS) - Technology education programmes are increasingly becoming a viable alternative to the standard four-year undergraduate university programme, according to the OECD, a major international grouping of rich countries.

On Wednesday, the OECD released findings from a new study, recommending implementing industry standards for certificates, which imply the recipient was specifically trained in that field. The study also encourages more CTE programmes, two-year institutions that train for a specific industry, to become accredited so employers can be more assured of their employees’ skills.

“In the 21st century, a college degree is not an end in itself,” Simon Field, project leader for the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills, says. “It is the skill development that is the key to greater individual and national prosperity.”

Between 2000 and 2003, the number of people seeking such professional certificates almost tripled, with the steepest increase coming from the information technology sector. The OECD study predicts that, by 2018, about two-thirds of all job vacancies will require more than a high school diploma, but only a third of vacancies will require a four-year degree or higher.

“The challenge has been that there is a segment of higher education regulations and institutions that look at work-based learning as of lesser importance, while the goal is to see this as an integrated system,” Sandi Vito, a state labour official, said at an event here Wednesday.  Work-based learning isn’t ‘lesser than’, and it should be combined with academic learning as well.”

According to a 2012 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, about 65 million people in the United States workforce have an industry certificate or a license to practice. Currently, one in 10 workers reports such a certificate as their highest level of education, according to the OECD study.

“Employers don’t think they have a very receptive audience in the higher education world, and that’s a problem,” Andrew Kelly, the director of the Higher Education Reform programme at the American Enterprise Institute, a consevative think tank, said at Wednesday’s event.  “At a CTE, its pretty clear why you are there: you’re there to get a job.”

In 2010, 1.5 million postsecondary CTE credentials outlining specific skills acquired through CTE programmes were awarded. Half of such credentials given out today are from public two-year schools – as opposed to more traditional four-year colleges or universities – and the rest are from private technical businesses and trade institutions.

“The overarching recommendation from the report is the need for the U.S. to strategically pursue more quality, coherence and transparency in the U.S. postsecondary system,” the study states.

The OECD’s research and recommendations put significant emphasis on a traditional position that has largely fallen by the wayside in the United States: apprenticeships. The study highlights these interim positions as a way to learn necessary skills for a chosen field that might not be taught in a classroom setting.

“Apprenticeships combines work and education simultaneously,” David McCord, the director of the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee, said on Wednesday, calling the idea of apprenticeships “phenomenal”.

Unlike an internship, an apprenticeship involves some classroom work, usually lasts between four to six weeks, and is paid. In the United States, apprenticeships are most common in the construction and agriculture industry.     

Need for standardisation

Despite the rising evidence of the current and potential benefits of CTE programmes in the United States, the OECD and many education experts agree that much still needs to be improved in this area.

According to Malgorzata Kuczera, the lead author of the new report, it remains difficult for companies to tell a high-quality CTE programme from others.

“If we could strengthen quality overall and ensure even the weakest programmes are of strong quality, this would provide a really robust opportunity for students to invest in their own future,” Kuczera said Wednesday. “It would also offer a robust assurance to employers that students have the necessary skills.”

There are currently about 5,000 certification programmes in the U.S., according to Roy Swift, with the American National Standards Institute, a non-profit group that oversees adherence to certain standards. Of these programmes, only about 10 percent have been accredited to meet national standards, he says.

“We have a problem here [the number of un-accredited CTE programmes] and we need to have people meet national standards,” Swift told IPS. “By doing this, [accrediting the programmes] it will increase the quality of the workforce and employers will be more satisfied with who they are receiving.”

Community colleges and four-year universities, which often do have several CTE programmes, are reportedly reluctant to apply for accreditation.

“Reliance on these standards [for accreditation] is critical to increasing quality and transparency of certificates and certification in the United States, leading to a more qualified American workforce,” Swift says.

Still, advocates are currently optimistic about the future of CTE programmes and the improvements they can bring to the workforce and the economy.

“Accreditation is critical, but the bottom line is getting graduates employed and that they are doing a good job for their employers,” Jay Box, chancellor of the Kentucky community and technical college system, said at Wednesday’s discussion. “What drives us most is our graduate success.”

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