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Will Labour’s vocational reform plans help the ‘forgotten 50%’ make the move into work?

Authors: Katherine Jones Katy Jones

02 October 2012

As part of our Missing Million programme on youth unemployment, we have identified how labour market change has made it increasingly difficult for young people to get an initial foothold in the labour market, particularly for those with low education levels. Ed Miliband’s keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference today (2 Oct) echoed this theme when he highlighted the challenges faced by the “forgotten 50 %” who don’t go to university, and what the Labour Party would do to help them.

Reforms proposed by the Opposition today (2 Oct) include: raising the standards of vocational qualifications with a new “Technical Baccalaureate” qualification; giving businesses control of a £1bn budget to improve apprenticeships and training standards; and introducing German-style company agreements to ensure that employers share in the cost of training. Miliband also called for his party to redirect their focus away from previous commitments to increase university numbers and towards ensuring that young people have access to high-quality vocational training.

Most (including the Coalition) accept the need to reform our vocational education system. Education and qualification levels have a strong influence on a young person’s ability to gain and maintain employment, and vocational qualifications in particular must be at a standard which gives employers the confidence that young recruits are a worthwhile investment. Increasing employer involvement would be a step towards achieving a more integrated education system and labour market, which in part explains much lower youth unemployment levels in Germany and other countries with a strong vocational offer. The Work Foundation will be launching a new paper shortly on what we can learn from the international experience of youth unemployment, in which we highlight several aspects of the German vocational system.

Whilst reform of the vocational sector is not a panacea for today’s youth unemployment crisis, it can certainly go some way to equip young people with the skills and experience they need to enter the world of work. This, however, needs to be combined with other measures; policy must also focus on improving coordination at both national and local levels, guaranteeing real part-time jobs for all long-term jobseekers, bringing more people into the support system, addressing transport barriers, and recognising the role that good quality careers education and guidance can play in smoothing young people’s transition from school to work. 

And of course all of these these responses must also go alongside measures to promote aggregate demand and growth in the labour market. There are no easy fixes; we need a coordinated effort across multiple fronts, and reform of vocational education is just one of them.