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How Vocational Education Can Be an Economic Driver

Last week Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker proposed an increase of $83.5 million for career and technical education (CTE or VET—vocational education and training—as it is called in most other countries around the world) in his state. In Oregon where I live, Governor Kate Brown authorized $35 million last year to improve CTE programs. These are just two examples of how policymakers, at the urging of business and industry, are turning to CTE to fill the skills gap and improve our economy.

South Korea once had a strong vocational education system—so powerful it rebuilt its shattered economy. But today that is no longer the case. As we work to improve our CTE system in the United States, it behooves us to look at why VET lost favor in South Korea and examine the innovative solutions that are being implemented to improve education, training, and career options there. 

From High Demand to Low Demand
After the Korean War, the economy of the newly divided Korean peninsula was devastated. However, you would never know it when you look at South Korea today. Gleaming skyscrapers dominate the Seoul skyline, internationally famous songs invoke the high life, and high-tech industry proliferates throughout the country.

It was no easy path to get this far in such a short period of time. It took comprehensive reforms that were anchored in education, and more specifically, vocational education and training.

In the 1970s and 1980s, vocational education in South Korea was more than socially acceptable, it was the primary way to succeed in obtaining a steady job with a decent income. Forty-five percent of students were enrolled in VET programs* compared to 11.4 percent in universities. With the shift to a more knowledge-based rather than industrial economy (known as the "tiger years"), the university degree grew in prominence to employers and, therefore, parents.  

Current Situation
Today, the perception of VET has quickly fallen, and in 2013, only 18 percent of students were enrolled in VET programs.* Part of this is due to the prestige of university—affluent families can afford the tutoring that is now required for students to pass the entrance exam and be able to attend college. Students from families who cannot afford these tutors simply have fewer options in higher education. 

VET students are labeled as "underachievers," and, in a society where traffic literally stops for the college entrance exam and top jobs at companies such as Samsung often depend on a prestigious college degree, often are looked down upon. In response, the government increased the number of spots in universities—in 2015 the rate of university enrollment was 68.2 percent, an increase of 15 percent over 2014.

Despite the focus on a college education, Korea's youth unemployment rate hit a 15-year high in 2015: 11 percent for those between the ages of 15 to 29—the highest since 1999. However, this statistic doesn't do justice to the actual situation: more than 58 percent of Koreans in this age group are without employment—many having given up on their job search and therefore aren't part of the official unemployment rate. The Korea Employment Information Service has analyzed the current situation and found that a skills mismatch is largely to blame for unemployment. In other words, the desire of students (and parents) to obtain a university degree is leading to a lack of employable people with the skills needed by industry. Therefore, there is a renewed effort by the government to re-establish VET programs and bring back the prestige they once enjoyed. 

Education System
After completing nine years of compulsory education, students choose a high school pathway (see diagram). For those interested in VET, there are two options: attend a vocational high school or go to a specialized Meister High School. 

Korean school system.jpg

Meister High Schools
Meister High Schools are based on the German educational model of creating top craftsmen. Students must score very well to gain entrance to these prestigious schools. There are currently 43 Meister schools across South Korea, each with a specific industry focus. Each school has industry partners and students are guaranteed not only employment upon graduation, but also, for males, a delay into military service. When they do enter military service, which is required for all males, they are likely to serve in a field related to what they studied. Students do not pay any tuition or fees, have top-notch facilities, and can even access free room and board if needed.

Meister schools are allowed to develop their own materials—a level of autonomy that other schools do not have. Many work directly with industry officials to develop a curriculum responsive to current needs. These materials are then added to a national database so other schools can choose to use them.

These programs are proving to be very much in demand. The Sudo High School, a Meister school specializing in energy that I had the opportunity to visit, has many more applications than available seats. Many employers court the students heavily, hoping they will come work for them upon graduation. In fact, Sudo High School has partnerships with 180 different companies—so many that they had to hire a department to manage these relationships.

When I asked one of the administrators at the Sudo High School about the biggest challenge he is facing, he didn't hesitate to say it was the lack of organization. They are being pulled in many directions by industry and the Ministry of Education. Many demands are made upon them without any central organization or assistance. In response, the Meister schools have organized themselves and have quarterly meetings to share best practices.

Vocational High Schools
IMG_6475.jpgThe other option for those who want to pursue VET but are unable to obtain a place in a Meister school is to attend a vocational high school. Students graduate as technicians, rather than the master craftsmen Meister schools are producing. Admission requirements are at a medium-to-low level and, as such, these schools still do not fill all the available seats they have. Unsurprising, there is a range of quality across these schools. I visited one of the top vocational schools, Seoul Technical High School, where, to boost attendance, they are encouraging younger students to visit and see the programs. The school is outfitted with the latest equipment and teachers are encouraged to spend time working in industry during school vacations so they are up-to-date on current industry practices.

Challenges and Potential Solutions

Industry Involvement
There seems to be a lack of involvement by industry in the VET system overall. In Seoul, there is a committee made up of VET teachers, administrators, and businesses, which makes recommendations to the Seoul Ministry of Education, but it is unclear how influential they are. Beyond the Meister schools, industry has little say in curriculum development, leading to the skills mismatch so prevalent across the country.

One attempt to overcome this mismatch is being made by the Ministry of Employment, Labor and Human Resources Development Service of Korea, and industry boards. They are creating National Competency Standards (NCS) and a National Qualification Framework (NQF) aimed at renovating the curriculum and training programs of VET. These have 21st century skills integrated throughout. For instance, the standards and framework for a waste management technician includes skills such as communication, problem solving, analysis, and cultural competency.

As is happening in the United States, apprenticeships are being used as a mechanism to promote industry involvement in education in the hope of closing the skills gap. In early 2015, the Korean President Park Geun-Hye traveled to Switzerland to study the apprenticeship system there. By summer, the Korean government mandated that all students in vocational high schools must also have an opportunity to be an apprentice. This "employment first, university later" policy aims to encourage VET graduators to work in industry and put off higher education until later.

This is a great opportunity to steer the entire education system toward a market-driven solution by providing training in those industries that need workers the most. If the government sincerely wants to establish a highly functioning apprenticeship system, they must engage industry as a true partner—meaning a surrender some of the control they currently hold over the system.* 

Employer involvement leads to more satisfied employers who have more faith in the system and are willing to hire the products of it. This also leads to more demand from students to enter into VET—knowing that they will have job opportunities upon completion. Therefore, industry must work with educators to design the curriculum of the apprenticeship programs and the government must help foster this collaboration.

And it must be done in a centralized way, which is not what is happening now. Currently, each company is designing their own program with no outside assistance. For instance, I visited with Roche, a Swiss company with a large presence in Seoul. They have started an apprenticeship program, but receive no central government support: Roche must create its own curriculum, severely limiting their capacity—they accept only three apprentices at a time.

Perception continues to be the largest challenge in Korea. Meister schools are proving to be a good influence in changing the opinion of VET—however, only 15,213 (5 percent) of high school students are enrolled in Meister schools. There just aren't enough places to meet the demand. And while there is a 100 percent employment rate for graduating Meister students, some are using these schools as an alternative path to gain entrance into university; if a student works in industry for three years after graduating from a Meister, they are exempt from the extremely difficult university entrance exam.

Vocational jobs are known in Korea as "3D": dirty, dangerous, and difficult—not a sentiment that improves overall perception. The person I spoke with at Roche said that when they first announced the apprenticeship program, no parents wanted their children to interview because it was an alternative, less desirable pathway. But now, after two years, word has gotten out that participating students are working in adult jobs and learning real skills that are highly valued in the current marketplace. In fact, now parents are calling and demanding interviews for their children to apprentice there.

Meanwhile, internally at Roche, the perception is also changing. At first, the apprentices were looked down upon and not respected by adult employees who thought they had little to offer. But upon seeing the hard work and the innovative ideas that youth can bring to the table, not only are the apprentices more respected, there has been a culture shift with younger full-time employees also more highly regarded and looked to for new and innovative ideas.

Another way to help with the perception challenge is to highlight the successes of VET programs; not just the Meister school successes, but also of the vocational high school students who go on to good jobs, apprenticeship programs, or who succeed at the World Skills competitions (Korea competitors often take top place and return to great acclaim—and a car proclaiming their victory—in Korea). But a more substantial marketing program, like the ones Switzerland and Singapore have conducted, may be required to achieve a wider mindset change.

VET in Korea has a long way to go to return to its former starring role as an economic driver. But with high unemployment rates and unrest among the young people—not to mention a growing unease with the university entrance exam system—it is a challenge that can no longer be ignored. 

This blog is presented as part of our ongoing partnership with NASDCTEc's Learning that Works! blog (National Association of State Directors of CTE Consortium). 

Connect with Heather, Asia Society, and NASDCTEc on Twitter.

*Citation for these statistics: Presentations made during the ETH-KOF Center on the Economics and Management of Education and Training Systems (CEMETS) Summer InstituteJuly 2015.

Image of Seoul Technical High School engineering student courtesy of the author. 

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