Let me tell you about a young man I know. He was unhappy at school and gained very little from years 11 and 12. He was intelligent, but he didn’t see relevance in what he was asked to study and he wanted to become more independent. He was what the professionals call a “disengaged youth”.
When he reached the statutory leaving age, he sought an apprenticeship as an electrician. The problem was he was already 18 and keen to move out of home. But his wage as an apprentice was only $496 per week. Not enough to thrive as an independent young adult, but still quite a lot for an employer to pay for someone with no experience.
The good news is that his interest picked up once he got into the workplace and he earned a good income after he qualified. Now he is considering studying engineering at university. How much better would young lives like his be if they could choose a different path during years 11 and 12? Engaged, learning, acquiring valuable skills and gaining independence gradually.
In Australia, we have done many young people a disservice. We raised the school leaving age with a well-meaning intention to increase education levels. But we did not change the school offering. Our system still acts as if every student beyond year 10 is aiming to secure university admission. As one NSW vice chancellor told me recently, “The only thing wrong with the Higher School Certificate is that it ruins years 11 and 12.”
We need to offer additional pathways that will lead some students to earlier employment, higher lifetime incomes and stronger career paths. A new approach will also better serve our economy, filling skills shortages and delivering the skilful workforce we need in a rapidly changing world.
There is a lot we can learn from Germany. There, youth unemployment is currently 6 per cent, compared to 11 per cent in Australia. In Germany, half of what we would call year 12 students are already engaged in an apprenticeship, preparing to qualify in one of 327 recognised vocations.
Students attend a government technical high school two days per week, where they learn German, maths and technical subjects. They also learn life skills, including managing money, working in a team, solving problems and being a participating citizen.
On the other three days, students are with an employer, partly in technical learning and partly adding value in the business. They are not a source of cheap labour. Their time at work is supervised by government-approved industry organisations that make sure they are learning industry-wide recognised skills. Their technical exams are administered separate from their employers and most are retained by the company where they trained.
The German system creates a second pathway that helps young people cross from adolescence to adult life. Involvement from employers also makes sure that German young people acquire the skills that the national economy needs.
Germany’s choice of apprenticeships in school is wider than in Australia – for example apprenticeships include cyber security, engineering in advanced manufacturing, rail systems operation, as well as service skills in disability care and tourism. There would be plenty of job opportunities in Australia for young people with these skills.
No-one is arguing it is bad to go to university or that skills acquisition should replace education. Instead, our mistake has been to think that preparing for and then going to university is the only path to a rewarding career. What is certainly wrong is to allow young people to feel that anything else is second best. The data shows there are winners and losers among the group who go straight to university after school, and the workers Australia needs do not all come from universities.
My experience talking with employers in many industries is that often they struggle to find young people suitably prepared to participate in well-paid roles. For example, a bank executive recently told me that although the bank is going to lay off thousands of people, it will hire about half that number back among people with digital skills. When I asked where these people would be found, he shrugged and said “457 visas?” Employers have a role to help produce the workers they want, rather than merely expressing dissatisfaction with the work ethic of today’s youth.
Sector leaders are already exploring new directions, such as the network of P-Tech colleges and tech schools. We should go further and establish vocational colleges for high-school-age students based on the European model. While we already have school-based apprenticeships and traineeships (SBATs) in Australia, these are uncomfortable add-ons to conventional matriculation-focussed high schooling. They comprise only 100 to 180 on-the-job days, compared to 450 days in Germany, and arbitrary rules prevent students progressing beyond year one. More importantly, the school timetable usually ploughs on while students are with their employers, requiring apprentices to catch up, compounding their workload.
Some may argue that a new approach would reduce opportunities for later higher education by closing off doors too soon. While in the past extra schooling protected young people from being factory fodder, today many young people are so disengaged by the current school offering that they are not opening any doors. The idea that school is a once-only opportunity to gain an education is no longer true – there are now many more pathways for people to return to education and learning throughout life.
Young people today will live for many years longer than their parents – and many are savvy and impatient! They will likely change occupations many times. We can enable young people to engage in learning they value when they are in their late teens – and equip them for lifelong learning.
The capabilities employers seek (teamwork, flexibility, initiative, deep skills) are closely aligned with what individuals need to lead fulfilling lives. Old ideas of keeping employers apart to protect young people are obsolete and counterproductive.
It is time to reappraise what schools offer in years 11 and 12. In NSW, the HSC is 50 years old and is being reviewed. Clearly we can improve our skills system across the country to incorporate some strengths from the European system. New partnerships can be struck between young people who want a job with a future, employers who want skilful staff, and educators and parents.
When building new schools, how about we create new colleges for digital and tech sector workers, and others for infrastructure development? For participants, this might involve two days a week at the college and three days a week getting paid to learn and work with successful employers in strong industries. These programs would not cost taxpayers more, but they would deliver much more for students and businesses.
Young people and their parents would knock the door down to get inside, and employers would get their pick of the best and brightest.
Let’s get the conversation rolling.
Get in touch to discuss how we can help education systems expand vocational opportunities for young people.
Written by Simon Smith during his time as a Nous Principal.
This is an extended version of an article published on The Mandarin on 24 October 2018.