In recent decades a wealth of research and critical literature addressing the subject of vocational education has been written. In his book Vocational Education: Purposes, Traditions and Prospects, for example, author Stephen Billet examines the nature of vocational education, and provides both a conceptual framework for understanding what the term means, and how it is manifested both in academic and occupational settings. Billet differentiates between the term “occupation” and “vocation,” and devotes significant discussion to understanding the different forms that vocational education takes in real-world settings. By differentiating between the type of vocational education found in academic settings and that which is found in occupational settings, Billett helps readers better understand how vocational education serves the needs of individuals who are involved in such education and how it serves the larger needs of the societies in which individuals function.
From an historical standpoint, vocational education arose from the traditions of apprenticeship that have long been used to transfer knowledge both between and among individuals and on an intergenerational basis. Such apprenticeships were historically served in a number of occupations, from blacksmiths to barbers to craftsmen and builders. In one sense, such apprenticeships served as a less-formal form of education than that which was found in the academic arena; concurrently, however, apprenticeships served a vital role in preparing individuals to fill the needs of the societies in which they functioned.
The integration of academic and practical forms of vocational education is, in the historical sense, a relatively recent phenomenon. Writing less than a century ago, Snedden (1920) notes that academic forms of vocational education were at the time seen as something that was largely reserved for the elite members of society (p.vii), while real-world, practical manifestations of vocational education were “haphazard, unorganized, and inefficient” (p.vii). Snedden further describes the then-extant literature on vocational education as primarily “a literature of aspirations” (p.vii). Such divisions between the academic and practical considerations related to vocational education still exist, though the overall field of vocational education has become significantly more integrated in the decades since Snedden addressed his concerns on the subject. In order to adequately address the subject of vocational education it is necessary to understand the full scope of what comprises it.
With such considerations in mind, Billett examines the nature of vocational education as comprising two distinct components. The first is the vocational education that is offered in schools and other formal settings; the second is that which is offered in on-the-job and other occupational settings (Billett, p46, 2011). Each of these components complements the other, and many individuals who are involved in vocational education will avail themselves of the opportunities available in each of these sectors. Vocational education serves a number of functions both at the individual and societal levels (Billett, p10). In primary and secondary schools, for example, vocational education can help individuals determine which sector of employment they are best suited for and further determine what course they will take in preparing to fill their later roles. Once established, vocational education in the school setting helps individuals garner the specific skill sets they will need in their future occupations. As individuals become ensconced in their vocational roles, ongoing vocational education can ensure that they keep up with the new skills and reinforcement training needed to ensure competency in their chosen fields. Finally, vocational education can assist individuals who are seeking to make a transition from one vocation to another, whether through academic training or in an occupational setting.
It is helpful when considering the nature of vocational education to draw a distinction between the terms “occupation” and “vocation.” In short, the term “occupation” refers to the various roles that have developed over time to fill the needs of a larger society. “Vocation,” by contrast, refers to the pursuits of individuals who are developing and learning about their own interests, or who hear a “calling” to pursue such interests (Billett, p7). As such, vocations may be individual pursuits that are not necessarily followed to serve the needs of societies, while occupations are largely social constructs. Where the two areas intersect, then, are in those vocations that serve the needs of society as well as the individual. It is at this intersection that the realm of vocational education is typically applicable.
Vocational education in the academic setting can take several forms. Primary and secondary schools offer a range of programs aimed at developing the skills individuals will need once they enter the job market. Some vocations require more training and education than can be provided in the primary and secondary school settings; post-secondary schools aimed at filling these requirements exist for a wide array of different vocations. Schools that teach computer skills, electronics, and other technical training are just some of the more common forms of post-secondary vocational schools (Nata, p16, 2003). A number of other different areas of educational facilities –such as business schools, for example- can also be considered as vocational education schools.
While it may be helpful to examine the nature of vocational education by looking at the academic environments in which vocational education programs are offered and by also exploring the nature of vocational education in the workforce and other settings, it is also important to acknowledge that these two worlds must be joined on a practical level in order to ensure that each offers students the best possible set of educational opportunities. The Carl D. Perkins Act of 1984 specifically addressed such concerns, offering federal financial support for vocational programs at the secondary and post-secondary levels (Felder and Glavin, p1, n.d.). Such support is primarily aimed at ensuring a successful transition for secondary and post-secondary vocational education students from the academic setting to the workforce. The U.S. General has reported that such funding has in some instances provided an incentive for schools at both the secondary and post-secondary levels to strengthen their vocational education programs and to offer greater opportunities to students who could potentially benefit from such programs but might otherwise have forgone such opportunities (GAO, p8, 1993).
Not all students at the primary and secondary levels who could potentially benefit from vocational education will necessarily pursue such courses at those levels. The same post-secondary schools that serve the needs of students who were enrolled in vocational education at the secondary level often also serve the needs of those students who begin their vocational education only after completing secondary school. Adult students who are already involved in the job market also find that post-secondary education can be useful and beneficial; this is especially true of adults who are interested in leaving behind one occupation as they enter another (Clarke and Winch, p133, 2003).
Billett notes that the arena of vocational education is an inherently diverse world (p3). Students engaged in vocational education come from all manner of demographic backgrounds. Adolescents and teens in primary and secondary schools who are involved in vocational education often enter post-secondary institutions alongside adults of various ages, including those who are transitioning from one occupation to another, those who are entering the world of education for the first time, and those who are returning to the workforce after retirement (Billett, p3). This diversity represents both challenges and opportunities to educators and students alike. While it may be difficult to prepare educational programs that serve the needs of such a diverse constituency, the real-world diversity that most individuals will face once they enter the job market means that preparation for such diversity can be crucial for success.
Specific programs found on the post-secondary arena of academia cover a broad range of employment sectors. Among these are medical sciences, such as medical assistant and nursing training; building and construction training; mechanical and automotive training; service occupations training related to hotel and restaurant management, and a variety of other job-sector related offerings (Clarke and Winch, p135). The schools that provide such training offer courses of varying lengths, with curricula and schedules adapted to serve the needs of the demographically-diverse field of potential applicants and students. These schools ostensibly teach students the skills and competencies requisite to the vocations they intend to pursue upon completion of the vocational education programs (Nata, p16). Depending on the vocational sector, entry into the job market may require licensing or credentialing; most vocational education schools that serve the needs of this constituency provide the necessary testing for students to attain such credentials after completing their educations (Billett, p6).
Bridging the gap between the arena of academic vocational education and occupational-setting vocational training are schools that allow students to serve internships or avail themselves of other on-the-job training programs. In some instances it is necessary for students to serve a specific number of hours in the field in the context of such internships or training programs before licenses or credentials can be obtained (Singh, p159). It is not unusual, for example, to see such programs in the fields of medical sciences and other such occupations, where competency is literally a matter of life or death (Nata, p20). As the demands of individual job sectors become more rigorous the need for highly-trained graduates becomes ever greater, placing increasing pressure on academic institutions to develop vocational education programs that ensure their graduates have mastered the core competencies of their chosen fields.
Separate from, but inextricably linked to, the academic arena of vocational education is the sector of such education that takes place entirely, or at least largely, in the workplace (Billett, p9). There are a number of occupations for which apprenticeships and on-the-job-training programs best serve the needs of vocational students. One obvious area in which this is often true is in the arena of building and construction trades. While it is typically necessary for building contractors to attain licensing or other credentials that can make academic vocational training an imperative, there are a number of occupations within the arena of the building and constriction trade where requisite skills are primarily learned on the job (Clarke and Winch, p192). There are many different levels of licensing applicable to various sectors of the building and construction trade, but such licenses do not always require the sort of intensive training and educational background as are required for contractors.
Vocational education can often take forms that are less obvious or familiar, but that still fit within the parameters of vocational education. Employers who wish to assist their employees in developing skills and competencies needed to remain current with evolving work sectors or changing regulations may offer vocational education programs in-house, or may provide for these employees to attend the necessary training at schools or other institutions (Billett, p23). Such programs may be brief and informal, or may require employees to invest significant time and effort into their ongoing vocational education. These types of programs further illuminate the position that the arena of vocational education encompasses a broad and diverse set of institutions and provides an array of different resources and opportunities to students.
The changing nature of national and international economic systems is having significant effects on the arena of vocational education (Clarke and Winch, p135). As economies change, the societal needs that underpin various occupations change with them. Some job sectors shrink during times of economic uncertainty; the construction sector for retail housing, for example, may be adversely affected by a shrinking economy (Billett, p112). Such changes may prompt those in this sector to seek new or –retraining in other vocations to ensure they remain viable members of the job market and can fill other or different roles. Other changes to economic systems may open up new job-market possibilities; advances in recent decades in the technology sector have meant there is now an array of jobs that did not exist before the technological revolution. Such changes in economic systems mean can make vocational training vital for those who wish to capitalize on those changes.
As societies grow more complex, there is a concurrent growth of involvement of both the public and private sectors in terms of vocational education. Organizations in both sectors have a stake in the continued economic success of those nations in which they function, and recent trends in vocational education have see increasing investment from the public and private sector in vocational education programs (Clarke and Winch, p176). As technology continues to evolve and to permeate virtually all economic and employment sectors the need for such involvement is likely to grow commensurately.
The future for vocational education seems likely to continue developing and evolving in coming decades. The explosive growth in both the academic and practical settings in which vocational education takes place has not gone unnoticed by researchers in the field; of particular note is the manner in which these two aspects of vocational education are becoming increasingly interconnected. Singh (1996) refers to the merging of these two aspects of vocational education as “the new vocationalism (p161), and this new vocationalism is increasingly defining the overall field of vocational education. As occupations in all sectors become more specialized, the challenges for students and educators alike to keep up with this evolution will place greater demands and greater emphasis on vocational education. As Billett describes it, the most valuable lesson for future educators is that “all education should be vocational”(p41). It will no longer be sufficient to offer students the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic; preparing students for the future will mean preparing them to fill the needs of society in ways that are only now becoming apparent.
Billett, Stephen. Vocational Education: Purposes, Traditions and Prospects. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2011. Print.
Clarke, Linda, and Christopher Winch. Vocational Education: International Approaches, Developments and Systems. London, UK: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Felder, Henry, and Sarah Glavin. Vocational Education: Changes at High School Level After Amendments to Perkins Act. Washington, DC: U.S. General Accounting Office, n.d. Print.
GAO. Vocational Education: Status in 2-Year Colleges in 1990-91 and Early Signs of Change : Report to Congressional Requesters. Washington, D.C: U.S. General Accounting Office, 1993. Print.
Nata, R. Vocational Education: Current Issues and Prospects. New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 2003. Print.
Singh, Uttam K. Vocational Education. New Delhi, India: Discovery Publ. House, 1996. Print.
Snedden, David S. Vocational Education. New York, NY: The Macmillan company, 1920. Print.