Beyond Vocational Education

Politicians love vocational education. They throw money at it, imagining this to be an harbinger of opportunity and catcher of votes. Wouldn't it be wonderful to train up all those young people on dole and get them to work? And, indeed, they preach as they practice - the developing world governments are told about their skills problems and told to take up loans (making themselves more indebted) to offer vocational education, the panacea of all ills! However, my contention is that vocational education, in the current form, does more harm than good.

This is because vocational education as practiced is based on an elitist perception both about the vocation and the education that it needs. The people who plan for plumbers' education often haven't spent a day in their life plumbing, and they believe plumbing is for those poor souls who couldn't do anything smart as them; for them, plumbing education is really about reading up a few pages of DIY guide as they would have done at one point or other in their lives (if that). They would underrate both the learners and the learning. They would look for quick and easy ways - I was told what's there to learn in carpentry that can't be covered in six months - and they would often do it on the cheap. 

The problem is that the Government intervention in this manner is not just a colossal waste of money; the only transformational effect it has, particularly on the developing economies, is to undermine the traditional trades and skills with half-formed skills and widespread derision about vocations being promoted.

Further, vocational education is often backward looking. In these trades, the maxim 'those who can't, teach' is very true: If you are a skilled tradesman in a relatively scarce skill, you won't be teaching people: You will practice your trade. The city people running vocational training programmes will hire those who have little idea about the trade or have no skills (or outdated skills) to teach, producing, in turn, more unemployable people. 

Finally, in the hands of the city people, most of the vocational education happens for trades which are rapidly disappearing. Call Centre Worker, Business Admin and the like are favourite areas for vocational colleges, but these trades increasingly don't exist in the developed countries; in the developing countries, where throwing people at work is still the norm, there is no value for skills in trades where that norm exists. 

What should the governments do, then? In a massively populous country like India, where 10 million new people will join the workforce every year, government has to think about all kinds of skills. One way would be to rethink the school education. Serious vocational appreciation should start right at the secondary school, and one could think of an apprenticeship-based alternative to high school for those who wish to pursue them. It is important to retain credential equivalence and those opt for vocational paths should not be castigated as less able and be left out from the middle class privileges.


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