The Trouble with Vocational Training

Vocational Training is supposed to be a big thing. This is heralded as the answer to the problems of productivity, particularly in countries in Asia and Africa with rapidly growing population. The idea is simple: Get the poor people in a classroom for a few months and make them learn something useful and then get them to work in a factory or profession. Once it is done on large scale - India says it wants to train 500 million people in next 10 years or so - the whole economy can change. The trouble is that it does not work.

I have articulated my complaints about the Indian vocational training system earlier, and hence I shall not repeat it here. I usually receive a stock answer when I talk about the short-comings of vocational training as it is done in India, that it is all down to poor execution. So, when outdated skills are taught, students do not engage or the trained students do not find a job, it bears down to the flaws of execution. I shall contend that these failures have something to do with design of how these training programmes are done.

I shall claim that the Government mandated, and hence funded, vocational training is hardly the way to develop skills and making people more productive. It has never been effective in any country, and what we are doing in the name of vocational training is to build a 'workhouse', an institution which was about confining the poor and employing them in menial trades in England during Industrial Revolution, so that the poor can remain off the street. Worse, the current systems of vocational training are not designed to enable the poor to have a better life - indeed, that can upset the social balance in some of these countries - but rather to make them fail and feel responsible for their own failure. All the elaborate rhetoric for vocational training stand for is that we have done our best but you are just not good enough!

Why say so? The reason is that we continue doing these big government projects on vocational training when we know perfectly well that only two models really work in vocational training. One, the 'demand led' model, where an employer, desperate for skilled workers, pay to get people trained. If the employers are not ready to pay for a particular skill, it is to be assumed that there is no requirement for it as well, except in artisan trades. Two, for artisan trades, the only model that works, and works well, is a 'community led' model, where a community of artisans train and absorb new comers through a slow and deliberate process, what Jean Lave will call the process of 'legitimate peripheral participation'. This is not just about learning to sew through PowerPoint, but actually being engaged in the community and perfecting a trade through practice and participation. 

Educators already know this. Yet, policy-makers, in their infinite wisdom, opt for a provider led model, colleges and training institutions being funded to train people. This only creates what it is supposed to create: An oversupply of useless training programmes which no one wants to take, and do no good. Indeed, people make money, particularly some of the global firms who confuse content with education all too often and grab a big chunk of the pie through licensing their content. From this perspective, vocational training does more harm than good to an economy, perverting the notion of skills altogether.

The other problem with vocational training is that this is treated separately from education. While we revel in seminar halls talking about changing nature of the economy and jobs, when we write policy, we tend to want to condemn people to a life of infinite uselessness through vocational training. This is why I compare vocational training to the workhouse, the new jail. It is almost designed to create the divisions between Have and Have-Nots, those who can think and thrive and those who can't. The strange thing is that this is done at the same time as we are talking about all the future jobs that can be automated will be automated.

At the least, time has come to recognise that vocational training, if this is really key for productivity, should not be seen separately from education. Higher Education as a higher thing not in terms of being tertiary, but a higher prestige thing, is promoted as the praises of vocational training is sung: In fact, this is designed to stigmatize vocational training as a lower thing, designed for lower beings. And, this aside, such distinctions are so obsolete: Everyone indeed needs to think, even the auto-worker. This business of vocational training sustains the business of Higher and Lower Education, and wouldn't let it progress into this age of information economy, the maker age, the social-structured age, or whatever name we want to use to describe our present social reality. 

Therefore, in summary, the vocational training as it is done today is counter-productive and wasteful. One needs to think beyond Government mandated, provider led formula that have been followed so far, and look for demand-led or community-led models, as appropriate for the particular vocation being promoted. This should come in hand in hand with the artificial divisions between education and vocational training: Education, after all, needs to provide a vocation, and vocational training, to be successful, needs to make people think. The policy-makers need joined up thinking, and countries are better served when they have a diverse educational system with deep participation from all sectors. The talk about vocational training has done little so far to move us to that direction.


Steve Dines said…
Great article. I have a B.Ed (Hons) Vocational Training and have worked in the "training " industry so I understand what you are trying to say here and agree wholeheartedly. I am afraid that while we continue to work to the "system" paradigm, things will never change. We need a paradigm shift in our thinking about education, training, work organization and goal accomplishment.
Unknown said…
Brilliant article. Its tragic to see vocational programmes go waste. They possess immense potential if executed correctly.
@Steve Dines : You mind sharing your email ID? Since you're B.Ed(Hons) Vocational Training, I'd be glad to know your insight on a few vocational training related issues.

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