In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama asserted his commitment to vocational education by noting the renowned system in Germany. He stated, "Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges. So those German kids, they're ready for a job when they graduate high school." In addition, the Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) outlined its proposed reform measures for vocational education—which is known as career and technical education (CTE) in the US—in the 2012 report titled "Investing in America’s Future: A Blueprint for Transforming Career and Technical Education".
However, for many Americans, the term 'secondary vocational education' often conjures up thoughts of home economics, wood shop, or automation repair classes. The majority of US vocational education is at the post-secondary level (i.e., after completion of high school), whereas vocational education and training (VET) in other parts of the world encompasses skills, trade apprenticeships, and education at the secondary and post-secondary level. Further, secondary vocational education not only plays an important role in these formal education systems, but also a key role in foreign labor markets.
While the Obama administration's stance on CTE reform is encouraging, its efforts are somewhat contradictory to the President's support of the Common Core State Standards, which focuses on universal student readiness for university-level education. This leads us to a controversial subject: Should society encourage every American student to go to college or university? The American secondary education system is currently set up with only two types of school-leaving qualifications: the high school diploma and the General Education Development (GED) certificate. However, the reality is that not all diplomas have the same value in the post-secondary education market and some secondary school students do not wish to pursue higher education. So, what are the alternatives?
Established in 1984, the Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) qualifications have long served as a system of awarding formal vocational training in a range of subjects and skills in the UK. BTECs are differentiated into eight levels and three sizes of qualification (i.e., award, certificate, and diploma, which are dependent on the number of credits). BTEC qualifications provide an array of apprenticeships and work training alongside courses. And unlike the German vocational system, where secondary pathways are chosen, on average, when a student is merely ten years of age, BTEC qualifications can be taken alongside, or in lieu of, other traditional post-secondary-bound school leaving qualifications, such as the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and the GCE Advanced Level (also known as the A-level).
Simply put, a student can simultaneously acquire work skills relevant to the labor market demands and university-bound qualifications. Another alternative route to high education via vocational education is to acquire a BTEC Level 4-5 Higher Nationals qualification, which is recognized by higher education institutions. Nonetheless, BTEC qualifications are fully recognized in the among UK employers, which is needed to ensure the value of the technical training and soft skills acquired through vocational education.
The impact of stagnant vocational educational reform is not only felt by American youth (ages 16-24)—who currently face a 16.3 percent unemployment rate (as of July 2013); it also tremendously influences the credential recognition of foreign nationals seeking employment in the US, many of whom attained formal vocational qualifications in their home countries. The unfortunate situation is that many US employers have a negative connotation with vocational education because of its reputation stateside and, yet it must not be forgotten that employers need a skilled workforce. Thus, the drive to expand US vocational secondary education will need to be multi-dimensional, in that it must address a multitude of areas, such as eradicating the social stigma associated with vocational education. Reform will also require greater cooperation among employers, the government, and schools to establish apprenticeships and employment opportunities for students, as well as providing alternative pathways to higher education.