To complete the Journal article, “A Road Map To Vocational Education And Training In Industrialized Countries”
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ILR Review, 68(2), March 2015, pp. 314–
DOI: 10.1177/0019793914564963. © The Author(s) 2015
Journal website: ilr.sagepub.com
Reprints and permissions: sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav
A Road Map To Vocatio nal Educatio n And
Training In Industrialized Countries
Werner Eichhorst, Núria Rodríguez-planas,
Ricarda Schmidl, and Klaus F. Zimmermann*
Young people have been among those most affected by the recent
financial crisis. Vocational education and training (VET) is often
viewed as the silver bullet for the youth joblessness problem. In this
article, the authors provide a better understanding of VET in industrialized
countries, proposing a typology with three types of vocational
systems: 1) vocational and technical schools, 2) formal
apprenticeships, and 3) dual apprenticeship systems that combine
school training with a firm-based approach. They first describe the
strengths and challenges of each system. They subsequently review
the evidence of the effectiveness of VET versus general education
and the relative effectiveness of the different VET systems. Results
indicate that VET is a valued alternative beyond the core of general
education and that the use of apprenticeships combined with
institutional learning tends to be more effective than school-based
Unemployment rates among youth have soared since the Great Recession
of 2008, doubling the adult unemployment rate in many developed
countries. While many young people have responded to sluggish labor
market prospects by continuing tertiary education and investing in their
human capital, others have withdrawn from education, training, and
employment. According to OECD (2013) data, youth unemployment rates
are now above 35% in countries such as Portugal and Italy and are above
50% in Spain and Greece, while they are still below 10% in countries such as
Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. The share of youth (aged 15 to 24) in
neither employment nor education (NEET) in 2012 ranged from 4 to 7% in
the Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland and up to 18% or more in
*Werner Eichhorst is affiliated with IZA. Núria Rodríguez-Planas is affiliated with Queens College
of CUNY and the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA). Ricarda Schmidl is affiliated with the University
of Mannheim and IZA. Klaus F. Zimmermann is affiliated with IZA and Bonn University. We thank
Costanza Biavaschi, Corrado Giulietti, Michael Kendzia, Alexander Muravyev, Victoria Finn, and Janneke
Pieters for their input and support. Inquiries can be directed to [email protected] or
564963ILRXXX10.1177/0019793914564963ILR ReviewVocational Education And Training In Industrialized Countries
Keywords: vocational education and training, apprenticeships, dual VET, vocational schooling,
Vocatio nal Educatio n And Training In Industrialized Countries 315
Greece and Italy.1 Regarding the situation of young labor market entrants,
the 2008 crisis and its aftermath clearly highlighted the interaction of a
cyclical development with long-standing institutional features governing the
transition from school to work. The situation deteriorated particularly in
those countries where young people had difficulty entering the labor market
even before the crisis, while other countries succeeded in maintaining
low youth unemployment rates by a variety of means.
Against this background, we look at the role of various types of vocational
education.2 Vocational education and training (VET) is frequently perceived
as the solution to improve the opportunities of youth who lack the
resources, skills, or motivation to continue with higher education. For
example, in countries such as the United States, the recent economic crisis
has reignited an earlier discussion of building up a larger and more effective
apprenticeship system (Harhoff and Kane 1997; Lerman 2012).3 In particular,
researchers, policy advisors, and other experts often argue that VET
provides useful skills to prepare youth for a smooth entry into the labor
force (Quintini and Martin 2006) by aligning initial education more closely
to particular vocations and tasks demanded in the labor market.
After classifying VET in industrialized countries into distinct systems, we
review the evidence on their effectiveness in facilitating transitions into
employment and in raising earnings, and highlight the relevant institutional
features that support the effectiveness.4 With this, we aim to provide evidence
that can be crucial in designing programs to counteract the labor
market problems exacerbated by the Great Recession.
A Typology of VET Provision
This section provides a typology of VET provision, reflecting the various
VET models found in practice among a range of countries. This topology
focuses on two dimensions. First, differences in provision may be viewed
along a continuum, reflecting the relative importance of institutional learning
and workplace training. At one extreme, vocational schools can provide
VET that is not complemented by work-based training; at the other, older
1NEET rates are taken from the OECD employment database and are based on national labor force
2In this article, we use the term “vocational education and training” (VET) to refer to qualifying education
paths that provide individuals with occupation-specific knowledge and practical skills, independent
of the place, content, and educational provider. Our focus is on initial VET, in contrast to
vocation-specific education and training as part of life-long learning (see Arulampalam, Booth, and
Bryan 2004; Bassanini et al. 2007 for workplace training in Europe). A related study (Zimmermann,
Biavaschi, Eichhorst, Giulietti, Kendzia, Muravyev, Pieters, Rodríguez-Planas, and Schmidl 2013) connects
vocational training with youth unemployment around the world, including developing countries.
The novel feature of our paper is the systematic and updated review of the major types of vocational
training systems from a policy perspective.
3Of course, VET is complementary to the various policies boosting labor demand (typically industrial
policies) in its goal to improve youths’ transition into employment.
4In medium-income countries and in the developing world, an alternative classification is appropriate;
see Zimmermann et al. 2013 and Eichhorst, Rodriguez-Planas, Schmidl, and Zimmermann 2013.
316 ILR Review
union-dominated apprenticeships did not include formal theoretical institutional
learning. A second dimension is whether institutional-based learning
is provided within formal secondary school frameworks (part of the education
system) or at vocational training centers (which often have close ties
to industry). Below we review these three systems.
Vocational and Technical Secondary Schools
Many countries maintain a large vocational schooling system as part of their
upper secondary education. In these countries, the initial schooling system
is characterized by the duality between general and vocational education.
While the former aims to provide youth with general, often academically
oriented knowledge as the basis for further (higher) education and training,
VET provides youth with practice-oriented knowledge and skills that
are required in specific occupations. VET typically follows a formal curriculum
that combines general and occupation-specific knowledge. Compulsory
schooling integrates VET as an alternative to an academically oriented
schooling track, or as part of several post-compulsory education options.
Similar to academic education, the skills that vocational schools provide are
mostly general in the sense that they are transferable between employers
(Becker 1964); however, there might be differences in the degree of transferability
across occupations. While some countries have a VET system that
transmits skills that are not restricted to one particular occupation, others
provide vocational schooling for specific types of occupations (Shavit and
Why Do Governments Offer School-Based Vocational Training?
The supply of VET by governments through the educational system can be
justified as a means to improve the opportunities of youth who lack the skills
demanded in the labor market, the ability or motivation to continue with
higher education, or the funding to pursue higher education. Furthermore,
individuals might prefer this option to academic education as it implies a
shorter human capital investment and facilitates earlier entry into the labor
market. Many countries that provide a vocational schooling option during
compulsory schooling perceive this as an alternative for poor academic performance
or at-risk youths (Neuman and Ziderman 1999), as well as a safety
net for early school dropouts and those who are less academically inclined.
The close link to work tasks and hands-on practical experience may motivate
practically oriented youths to continue training and to remain in school
longer. Furthermore, researchers have argued that establishing a vocational
education track during school is a means to reduce the influence of parental
background on educational choices, thereby increasing intergenerational
mobility. Given that the educational decisions of youths are often
linked to the educational attainment level of their parents, participation in
a vocational track might allow those from working-class backgrounds
Vocatio nal Educatio n And Training In Industrialized Countries 317
to pursue educational attainment beyond the compulsory level, hence
increasing their chances of attaining skilled rather than unskilled employment
(Shavit and Müller 1998).
In most cases, participation in either vocational or academic courses during
school is operationalized by tracking students in the two respective pathways.
The benefits of such a tracking system are not clear, as leaving school
with vocational qualifications often translates into reduced options of further
post-compulsory education, particularly the academic type. The incentive
effect of learning more practice-oriented skills might therefore be mitigated
by high costs of later switching to academic education. Although the
technical possibility of transferring to academic education might exist, earlier
tracking will lead to strongly divergent levels of skills and competences
(Woessmann 2008). Furthermore, through separating higher and lower
performing students, VET might counteract the equalizing potential of
vocational education (Shavit and Müller 2000). Given that very few youth
manage to enter academic education after vocational schooling (Kogan
2008), populations in many countries often have a low regard of the vocational
schooling option since they perceive it as a dead-end track and a
Southern European Countries
Most of the vocational training in Spain takes place in school instead of
within a firm: Only 4% of those in vocational upper-secondary education in
Spain combine school- and work-based training (CEDEFOP 2010). Similarly,
three in four young people in vocational training in France participate
in school-based vocational training as opposed to the apprenticeship alternative.
In Italy, firm-level vocational training is not widespread since it is
used only in crafts, retail, and large manufacturing companies, and is based
on fixed-term employment contracts.
Youth in these countries face particular difficulties when trying to enter the
labor market, especially since the recent economic crisis has aggravated these
long-standing problems. In addition to having above-average NEET rates,
labor market entry is difficult for both low- and high-skilled young people.
One major factor is the deep labor market segmentation between permanent
and fixed-term contracts, which can be attributed to strict dismissal protection
and largely liberalized temporary employment. Another issue is wage
compression in low-skilled occupations by collective bargaining. For instance,
collective bargaining in Spain, which is centralized at the province and industry
level, sets “entry minimum wage” above the legal minimum wage, inflating
the lower part of the wage distribution and resulting in relatively high earnings
for young workers and those least qualified. Together, employment protection
and wage compression make it difficult in Spain for youth to become
established in the labor market and to transition to a permanent position.
Such effects on youth employment have been found in previous international
work such as Bertola, Blau, and Kahn (2007) and Kahn (2007).
318 ILR Review
In some of these countries, the relatively marginal role of vocational
training can be explained not only by a limited interest of employers in
more formal vocational training (given the dual-employment structure) but
also by strong expectations of upward social mobility on behalf of young
people and their families, which creates strong preference in favor of academic
training (Planas 2005). Moreover, a long tradition in these countries
is to subsidize temporary employment and training contracts as part of
Active Labor Market Policies (ALMP). The effectiveness of these measures
is questionable, however, as explained by Felgueroso (2010) in Spain, Roger
and Zamora (2011) in France, and Tattara and Valentini (2009) in Italy.
Evidence from cross-country comparisons in Europe, which have
attempted to implement vocational schooling systems, points to the necessity
of several systematic elements to ensure success, as described below
(Woessmann 2008; Gambin 2009):
1. Ensure curricula relevance: All stakeholders (government, employers,
social partners, educational institutions) need to be involved in curriculum
development, with a clear assignment of responsibilities. The weight
of the respective voices might differ across countries.
2. Maintain close labor market contact: A system of continuous feedback
from employers and private-sector institutions allows for adaptation of
the training content to labor market needs. This element requires a high
degree of employer involvement.
3. Ensure high-quality training: Sufficient funding is required to guarantee
the appropriate teaching material and the availability of well-trained
teachers. A decentralized system of quality assurance and local competition
among training centers, in combination with output-based funding
and licensing, needs to be established.
4. Establish qualification frameworks: Centralized accreditation of training
curricula creates transparency and promotes acceptance among employers.
5. Limit the risk of creating a dead-end vocational schooling track: The
competences and qualifications acquired should be comparable and
creditable to academic qualifications to promote transferability between
the two and to avoid stigmatization of vocational schooling participants.
In some countries, VET is provided through formal apprenticeships, with institutional
instruction complementing workplace training. This arrangement
occurs primarily in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia.
The United Kingdom
In the 1980s, traditional apprenticeships lost their appeal in the United Kingdom
because of “the recession, the removal of supports and the introduction
of cheaper, less-valued alternative training schemes such as the
Vocatio nal Educatio n And Training In Industrialized Countries 319
Youth Training Scheme (YTS) and its successors” (McIntosh 2007: 4). With
the relative shortage of intermediate (Level 2 and Level 3) vocational skills in
the mid-1990s, however, apprenticeships were reintroduced as Modern
Apprenticeships at Level 3 and National Traineeships at Level 2. Despite considerable
public interest in their expansion, the overall participation rates
remained rather low during the early 2000s. Possible explanations for this
modest involvement include 1) the lack of a central and rigorous assessment
of the apprentices’ qualification obtained; 2) the high costs of apprentices to
employers, relative to other countries such as Austria, Germany, or France,
among others (Steedman 2010); and 3) a shift toward offering apprenticeships
to older youths who had previously worked at the company (Wolf 2011).
The 2009 reform—the Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning
Act—addressed some of these issues, in particular tightening the link
between the apprenticeships and employers and offering larger incentives
for employers to increase training activities. Subsequently, the number of
youth below the age of 25 who participated in apprenticeships increased
from 387,000 in 2007–2008 to about 460,000 in 2011–2012. In 2010, the UK
government implemented the Specification of Apprenticeship Standards for
England (SASE), harmonizing the qualifications of the various apprenticeships
and increasing transparency in training activities. In addition, the
United Kingdom offered employers a grant of 2,500 pounds per apprentice
aged 16 to 17 years old. In 2012, they extended the grant to incentivize training
of those up to 24 years old. Moreover, they started the National Apprenticeship
week, a yearly public event to draw media attention to the benefits of
offering and learning in apprenticeships, as well as to increase the acceptance
of apprenticeships. Further government reforms are currently underway
to improve training quality and transferability and to ensure continuous
adaption of the qualifications and skills to align with economic demand
(Department for Education, Department for Business and Skills 2013).
The United States of America
In the United States, formalized apprenticeships have a limited role and are
largely confined to adult education in so-called Registered Apprenticeships
in the construction industry (e.g., electricians, carpenters, plumbers, and
others). Through the combination of time spent in theoretic instruction
and work-based training, the apprenticeship system imparts both general
and occupation-specific knowledge; however, the place of training is concentrated
in the firm, as the apprenticeship system operates without any
close links to formal education.5
The Office of Apprenticeship (OA) in the U.S. Department of Labor
(DoL) is in charge of the registration and evaluation of VET. Thereby, the
5Alternatives to apprenticeships in the United States are specific programs targeting at-risk youth and
training students for careers in specific sectors, combining high-school classes, training, and work experience
(see Holzer 2012 for a thorough review).
320 ILR Review
Advisory Committee on Apprenticeship (ACA) supports the OA. Across 26
states, State Apprenticeship Agencies (SAAs) are responsible for the apprenticeship
programs, including the provision of technical assistance. Currently,
around 21,000 apprenticeship programs are registered in the United
States. Participation numbers from the DoL count approximately 290,000
active apprentices in 2012. Since 2008, the number of active apprentices has
been steadily decreasing, largely because of a steep decline in the number
of new apprentices. This figure accounts only for apprenticeships not
offered by the military (currently around 70,000) and for those registered
with the labor office. Lerman (2012) suggested that the actual number of
total apprentices is higher, given that not all apprenticeships have to be registered.
Contrary to the European model, U.S. apprentices are in their midto
late-20s and have most likely already gained some work experience.
Although the majority of VET participation is school-based (80% in 2011), a
comprehensive Australian Apprenticeship system also exists. This system differentiates
between two types of contracts: apprenticeship contracts and traineeship
contracts. Apprenticeships refer to technical occupations and the traditional
trades, whereas traineeships apply to all other occupations (Karmel,
Blomberg, and Vnuk 2010). These traineeships are comparable to further
qualifying training that occurs in other countries because of their short duration
(typically less than one year). The contracts are structured in both workbased
learning with an employer and school-based education with certified
training providers. Contrary to apprenticeships, which have a long tradition
in Australia, traineeships were introduced in 1985 to counteract unemployment
of those aged 15 through 19 with low levels of schooling. The participation
in apprenticeships and traineeships has significantly increased across all
age groups over the past years due to supportive policies, such as financial
hiring incentives, part-time training, minimum training wages, and waived
age restrictions (ibid.). Specialized subsidies have encouraged the training of
workers aged 25 and over as well as mature workers (45 and above); thus, the
share of adults among participants increased to one-third and two-thirds,
respectively, of all new entries into apprenticeships (traineeships).
In Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, the dual VET accommodates
between 40% (Austria) and 80% (Switzerland) of all school leavers.
The dual apprenticeship systems in these four countries share the following
four key institutional elements.
1. A high degree of formalization: They provide training in centrally accredited
occupational qualifications, and the training content is continuously
adapted to meet the changing labor market requirements.
Vocatio nal Educatio n And Training In Industrialized Countries 321
2. Strong involvement of social partners: Representative advisory boards
assist in developing and maintaining curricula at the governmental and
federal level. Regional trade or occupational committees, or a combination
of the two, undertake implementation and monitoring.
3. Vocational colleges provide the school-based part of dual apprenticeships:
Colleges cover both general and occupation-specific education.
The government bears the costs of training in the schools.
4. Firms must meet certain technical standards: A training firm will not
obtain accreditation if standards are not met. Offering apprenticeships is
optional for companies, but those who choose to offer them follow standard
application procedures to match the firm with trainees. The training
companies cover the training costs within the firm.
Why Would Firms Invest in General Training?
While dual training exhibits several advantages from societal and individual
perspectives, establishing an efficient dual apprenticeship system crucially
depends on the willingness of firms to participate. To ensure postapprenticeship
skill transferability across firms, the training should provide
a sufficient amount of general schooling. As Becker (1964) noted, however,
in a perfectly competitive labor market, in which workers are paid according
to their marginal productivity, firms have no incentives to invest in general
schooling because workers could leave directly after the training period
in order to reap all the benefits of their acquired general skills.6 Hence, for
firms to provide both specific and general training, the worker must bear
the general training costs. Implementation would include state-funded
school-based general education or firm-based general training, along with
workers paying for their training costs. Alternatively, firms could be incentivized
to participate, if they were able to recoup part of their investments by
contractual arrangements ensuring that either 1) apprentices accept a wage
lower than their marginal productivity during the training period, or 2)
apprentices continue to work for the firm beyond the training period (Malcomson,
Maw, and McCormick 2003). In fact, what we see in countries such
as Germany, Switzerland, and Austria is a specific collective agreement
reached between unions and employer associations, or wage recommendations
issued by professional associations, setting a generally applied rate for
apprentice remuneration. This wage is significantly below the earnings of a
full-time low-paid job and thus can be seen as a part-time wage or some basic
income support during the training period.
In practice, this model seems to explain firms’ incentives to offer training.
In some countries, such as Switzerland, the low level of wages and the
strong involvement of apprentices in the productive activities during the
6As discussed below, many firms do invest in their employees’ general training. Some reasons that
explain this are informational asymmetries regarding workers’ productivity, search costs and market frictions,
or monopsony power.
322 ILR Review
apprenticeship allow firms to incur a net benefit during the training period
(Lerman 2014). In other countries, such as Germany, some firms are found
to incur a net cost during the training period (Harhoff and Kane 1997;
Dionisius et al. 2009).
Several theories attempt to find alternative explanations of the training
activities of firms (for an excellent overview, see Wolter and Ryan 2011). In
particular, Acemoglu and Pischke (1998, 1999, 2000) developed and
extended the framework of Katz and Ziderman (1990) in which informational
asymmetries regarding the abilities of workers and the quality of
training received can lead to sufficient incentives for firms to invest in general
training. Given that firms are able to learn the ability of the worker during
the training period, the additional presence of a compressed market
wage allows firms to pay high-ability workers less than their marginal product,
hence reaping part of the benefit of training. A compressed wage structure
might arise because of 1) information asymmetries and complementarity
between ability and training in the production function (Acemoglu and
Pischke 1998); or 2) search costs combined with market frictions such as
collective bargaining, minimum wages, and firing costs, which are higher
for high-skilled workers (Dustmann and Schönberg 2009). Booth and Zoega
(2004) pointed out that wage compression is not a necessary condition for
the emergence of firm-based training, but suggested that all setups resulting
in a situation in which training increases the worker’s productivity more
than their wage are expected to stimulate the investment in training. In particular,
factors reducing the apprentice’s propensity to quit after the apprenticeship
increase the willingness to invest in training.
Another set of models explores the deterring effect of poaching, a practice
in which firms not investing in training might hire apprentices from the
training firm by offering them higher wages. Hence, firms are more likely to
engage in training if they are able to enjoy some monopsony power arising
from industry- and occupation-specific skill requirements, dispersed regional
location of firms, and lower product market competition (Gersbach and
Schmutzler 2006; Smits 2007; Lazear 2009). While the incidence and relevance
of poaching is difficult to measure, recent evidence from Germany
suggests that 3% of training firms in Germany are poaching victims. Firms
in bad economic situations that are unable to make counter offers are particularly
affected (Mohrenweiser, Zwick, and Backes-Gellner 2013).
A further potential reason to participate in training might be that firms
prefer to ensure their own future skill supply by providing such training
themselves. Some countries, however, such as Switzerland, maintain a large
dual system and have a high turnover rate after training (Wolter and Schweri
2002). It may be that firms train apprentices to use them in current production,
and although firms might incur a net cost for the average productive
apprentice, some high-productivity apprentices might also be paid less than
their marginal productivity, given that the overall wage level for apprentices
tends to be low (Mohrenweiser and Zwick 2009). In particular, if few outside
Vocatio nal Educatio n And Training In Industrialized Countries 323
options exist for youth, they might be willing to engage in such a payment
scheme since they would benefit afterward from the acquired skills.
Why Is the Dual System Not Readily Transferable?
The dual VET depends on some essential preconditions. For instance, it relies
on strong cooperation between government and employers to develop the
VET institutional framework, to design and adjust curricula, to certify competences,
and to co-fund the plant-based and school-based elements. In addition
to these regulatory and budgetary issues, the dual system depends on sustained
and active support from a sufficiently large number of actors, such as:
1. Trade unions must accept that apprenticeship contracts have lower payments
compared to regular contracts;
2. Employers must be willing to provide training (not in an informal manner
but according to occupational curricula), to send apprentices to
vocational school leading to certified occupational qualification, and to
provide them with a credible prospect of sustainable employment;
3. Government must provide for vocational schools and teachers and also
for preparatory training for young people who fail to enter apprenticeships;
4. Youth and parents must accept VET as a solid alternative to academic
These elements tend to be mutually reinforcing. As they have developed
over a long time, these conditions cannot be readily transplanted across different
institutional and historical contexts. However, many countries have
tried to develop dual VET programs. For example, in the United States,
both the National Youth Apprenticeship Act under the administration of
George H. W. Bush and the School-to-Work Opportunities Act under President
William Clinton were attempts to implement the dual system. According
to Lerman and Rauner (2012), however, widespread participation in the
youth apprenticeship could not be reached because of 1) the inability of
employer organizations to coordinate long-term training plans; 2) the federalist
division of responsibilities that impedes a binding national framework
for the training systems; 3) a general mistrust in the idea of imparting
specific human capital, as it is likely perceived to lose its value more quickly
in a continuously changing labor market (Krueger and Kumar 2004); and
4) a lack of employer interest in participating in this exchange. Despite the
futile efforts at the federal level, some states were able to establish and maintain
a functioning small-scale dual apprenticeship system, particularly in the
construction industry (Bilginsoy 2003).
Complementary to the previous analysis outlining the incentives of firms
to provide training, the quality of the training must be of a sufficiently high
level to ensure that students are willing to participate in apprenticeship
training. Acemoglu and Pischke (2000) highlighted the existence of external
certification of training content that increases the value of training in
324 ILR Review
the overall labor market, and hence the willingness of students to invest a
high level of effort during the apprenticeship. At the same time, Dustmann
and Schönberg (2012) pointed out that the external certification and
occupation-specific binding standards for the content of training are important
commitment devices for firms to invest in high-quality training. In the
absence of these two conditions, firms may exploit students as cheap laborers,
which thus reduces the willingness of students to participate in training
and lowers the reputation of apprenticeship training in general. Dustmann
and Schönberg (2012) suggested that the abolishment of mandatory, external
training boards in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, which centrally
decided on the training content, was responsible for the decline of the relevance
of the UK apprenticeship system. This trend further highlights the
need for a specific institutional framework when aiming to establish a mainstream
dual VET system, since it is not easy to replicate its complexity.
Is school-based vocational training as effective as general-based education?
How useful are apprenticeships in helping youth transition into the labor
market? How does the dual system compare with general-based education
or other types of vocational training? Which type of VET best prepares workers
for the labor market? Researchers have attempted to answer some of
these questions for different countries and here we summarize the findings.
As will become apparent, no easy answers resolve these questions given variation
across and within countries and studies. Countries’ institutional and
cultural differences, as well as the available amount of information on workers,
jobs, and labor market characteristics in the data sets used explain some
differences, yet several identification problems within the literature are difficult
Most of the literature compares the employment outcomes of VET students
with an alternative group, namely general-based education students,
other VET tracks, school dropouts, or college graduates in the same country,
after controlling for all observable characteristics available. However, we
acknowledge that unobserved heterogeneity may still prevail given that youth
deciding to study VET may have different abilities, tastes, and preferences
about work from those who choose an alternative education system or no
education. If unobserved quality differences occur between both types of
youth, results from cross-sectional studies will reflect an omitted variable
bias. For instance, given that VET is frequently intended for youth with lower
motivation and ability than those who pursue general-based education, noncausal
estimates of the returns to vocational education relative to generalbased
education will be downward biased (Willis and Rosen 1979; Tuma
1994; McCormick, Tuma, and Houser 1995). By contrast, the opposite is
likely to be true when comparing students from vocational education to
school dropouts. Furthermore, a related concern arises due to different
Vocatio nal Educatio n And Training In Industrialized Countries 325
occupations requiring diverse mixes of academic and practical skills. If youth
self-select into various occupations based on their skills, evaluating the effectiveness
of the differing systems becomes a difficult task given that the
employment patterns, payment structures, and union coverage in the occupations
themselves may not be comparable.
Unable to exploit exogenous changes in the institutional setting, the majority
of country studies conduct descriptive analyses controlling for students’
characteristics; this is to capture the expected opportunity cost of the alternative
forms of schooling, including grades and test scores achieved prior to
accessing VET or remaining in general education, family background, and
local economic conditions. Additional confounders include subjective statements
of preferences for VET or academic studies (Bishop and Mane 2004),
subjective self-assessments of ability (Hotchkiss 1993), and information concerning
the vocational orientation of the school captured by full-time vocational
teachers and the schooling choice of previous cohorts (Meer 2007).
In addition to the aforementioned problems, one has to add measurement
issues in studies comparing the effectiveness of two types of VET systems
across countries. Indeed, the covariation of other relevant institutional
factors, the absence of a unified framework for defining the respective training
options, as well as the difference in data collection and quality frequently
bias cross-country studies analyzing the relative effectiveness of school-based
VET and the dual system (Hoeckel 2008). In an attempt to avoid this problem,
some studies exploited the two systems’ coexistence within countries to
evaluate their relative effectiveness. However, in most countries one system
prevails over the other, and the reason for that is likely correlated with the
labor market structure, thus adding yet another source of endogeneity.
One way to address the selection problem is to exploit some exogenous
change that lengthens or shortens one educational system compared to the
other. For instance, several researchers have exploited institutional changes
increasing the duration of general schooling in the vocational schooling
tracks of those respective countries (Oosterbeek and Webbink 2007; Pischke
and von Wachter 2008; Hall 2012; Felgueroso, Gutiérrez-Domènech, and
Jiménez-Martín 2014), whereas others have used an instrumental variable
approach (Fersterer, Pischke, and Winter-Ebmer 2008). Furthermore, an
alternative way to address the endogeneity is to use propensity score matching
that addresses the selection problem (Lee and Coelli 2010) or, even better,
conduct randomized controlled experiments designed before the VET
program implementation (Díaz and Jaramillo 2006; Attanasio, Kugler, and
Meghir 2011; Card et al. 2011). The concerns with randomized controlled
experiments are their external validity and their costs.
Evidence of Vocational and Technical Secondary Schools
Rigorous quantitative evidence on the returns to school-based vocational
education is scarce primarily due to the lack of informative data. Most countries
experience a negative selection into vocational schooling tracks,
326 ILR Review
leading to a systematic underestimation of vocational training effects when
the selection issue is unaccounted. Here we review some of the existing evidence
on the relative benefits of participating in vocational schooling relative
to general schooling. We thereby focus on studies that aim to control
for the selection. Clearly, however, the lack of evidence based on random
variation is quite unfortunate and raises accountability concerns, as discussed
Overall, the evidence described below indicates that youth completing
school-based VET do as well (and sometimes better) than if they had instead
remained in purely academic studies (Tansel 1994, 1999; Mane 1999; Tunali
2002; Bishop and Mane 2004, 2005; Meer 2007). Some evidence found that
school-based VET is most efficient when the area of vocational training is
matched with the occupation of employment, whereas no significant differences
arise for unmatched groups (Neuman and Ziderman 1991, 1999).
Additionally, it is efficient when offered to low-ability individuals and to
those who work in lower skilled jobs (Dearden, McIntosh, Myck, and
A number of studies provided evidence on labor market returns to vocational
curricula in the United States, showing a positive effect in the short to
medium run. They also found that for later cohorts, returns to attending
technical schooling have increased over time. While Hotchkiss (1993) found
no return to vocational schooling on employment and wages of high school
graduates in 1980, even after controlling for training-related occupation
choice, Mane (1999) identified differences in the returns to vocational
training of high school graduates who do not attend college during the
1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, finding a positive trend over time. Whether this
trend was due to increasing quality in education or to increasing demand
for these skills remains unclear. The positive wage and employment effects
of participating in the vocational track were confirmed by Bishop and Mane
(2004) using data from the National Education Longitudinal Survey of
1988, and by Bishop and Mane (2005) using high-school transcripts. They
noted that a growing need for these types of skills during the 1980s and
1990s most likely explained the increasing returns to vocational training in
the United States. They used a multinomial logit selection model to account
for self-selection in track choice, and found that those on the technical or
academic track are best off following the path they chose, suggesting that
VET provides a valuable alternative for youth aiming to work in technical
Using data on high-school qualifications in Israel, Neuman and Ziderman
(1991, 1999) found that school-based VET yielded higher returns than
general schooling, but only when the occupation of the VET and the occupation
of employment are matched. For cases in which the occupation of
training and employment are matched, the authors estimated that vocational
high school graduates earned between 8 and 10% more than those
with solely academic qualifications. No significant earnings differences
arose between vocational high school graduates with unmatched jobs and
Vocatio nal Educatio n And Training In Industrialized Countries 327
academic high school graduates. The probability of finding a matching
occupation varied substantially across occupations. Taking the average of
37.5% indicated that the overall wage gain of the vocational occupation was
still at 3%.
Some studies provided evidence of the differential rates of return to vocational
education. After using a variety of data sets, accounting for the time
taken to acquire various qualifications and controlling (when possible) for
ability bias and measurement error, Dearden et al. (2002) found that the
returns to UK school-based vocational education varied with the type of
qualification obtained. These authors found that the returns to academic
qualifications were higher if individuals subsequently acquired a skilled
rather than an unskilled job. Heterogeneity also occurred among individuals’
ability. The returns to vocational qualifications were significantly higher
for low-ability individuals. In a different setting, Tansel (1994, 1999) and
Tunali (2002) found differential returns to vocational training (relative to
general schooling) by gender in Turkey. Controlling for the differential
selectivity into the choice of tracks, they found that women who participated
in vocational education benefited from a higher employment probability,
while men experienced higher wages. Furthermore, women seemed to benefit
predominantly in urban areas, while males benefited in both rural and
urban settings, suggesting that females faced participation constraints in
addition to educational ones.
It is interesting to note that recent studies that exploited a reform to
identify the effectiveness of school-based vocational training relative to general
education did not find any effects of increasing the general education
for students in the vocational training track by one year. Oosterbeek and
Webbink (2007) investigated the increase in duration of the vocational
schooling track in the Netherlands in 1975 by one year, with the additional
year designated only to general schooling. Adopting a difference-in-difference
strategy, they analyzed the effect of the change on wages 20 years later and
did not find any effect. Most recently, Malamud and Pop-Eleches (2011)
evaluated a Romanian reform that postponed the tracking of students into
vocational and academic schools. Using a regression discontinuity design,
they found no effects of this reform on university completion, labor market
participation, or earnings. Pischke and von Wachter (2008) exploited the
gradual adoption of a one-year increase in compulsory schooling in the lowest
schooling track in Germany between the 1950s and 1970s to study its
effects on long-term wages, and likewise found no effects of the policy.
Hall (2012) assessed a policy change in Sweden in 1991 that increased
the duration of general education content of the vocational schooling at the
upper secondary level by one year, after which students were eligible to
enroll in tertiary education. Exploiting random differences in time and the
regional implementation of a policy pilot, Hall did not find any effects on
subsequent study take up, nor any increase in the wages earned up to 16
years after the beginning of upper secondary school. She found, however,
328 ILR Review
that low-achieving students were significantly more likely to drop out of
upper secondary education.
Using an instrumental variable approach, Cappellari (2004) assessed differences
in early labor market outcomes for participants in vocational or
general secondary schooling in Italy. Observing that the selection into the
respective tracks was strongly related to parental background and ability, he
used grandparents’ school participation as an instrument, arguing that this
is exogenous to the pupil’s labor market outcomes (after controlling for
parental characteristics) but relates to the decision on whether to select into
general or vocational schooling. He found that participating in the vocational
track increased the early career employment and labor market participation
rates, while general schooling increased the probability of attending
university. Unfortunately, the study analyzed only short-term effects. An
interesting French study estimated both short- and long-run effects of vocational
versus general schooling tracks (Margolis and Simonnet 2003). Controlling
for non-random selection using a Heckman selection correction
model, these authors found that technical education had a similar effect as
general education on the speed of entry into the first job. However, they
found that five years after entering the labor market, youth with lower levels
of vocational schooling earn less than those who graduated from the academic
schooling track. They further found that one channel through which
participants of the lower- or medium-level vocational schooling track experienced
a fast entry into employment was the increased probability of finding
the first job via social networks—although, this network effect faded
Apprenticeships seem to improve both social and occupational skills of
apprentices (Rose 2004; Halpern 2009), yet rigorous quantitative evidence
on their effectiveness is meager, even in countries where apprenticeships
are widespread (Lerman 2013). Overall, studies indicate apprenticeship
effectiveness varies with the counterfactual to which they are compared.
When compared to other types of VET or post-school study, it seems that
apprenticeships work better than the alternative (Bonnal, Mendes, and
Sofer 2002; McIntosh 2004, 2007; Lee and Coelli 2010; Alet and Bonnal
McIntosh (2004) analyzed the returns to apprenticeships in the United
Kingdom prior to the 2004 reform. Using the 1996–2002 Labour Force Survey
(LFS), he found that while completing an apprenticeship increased
males’ wages by around 5 to 7% (controlling for other qualifications held
and personal characteristics), it had no effect for women. He also found
sectoral differences, with higher returns among men working in manufacturing
industries rather than in the service sector. Most recently, McIntosh
(2007) evaluated the government-funded apprenticeships established in
the United Kingdom in 2004. Using Labor Force Survey and OLS estimates,
Vocatio nal Educatio n And Training In Industrialized Countries 329
he compared the effectiveness of these apprenticeships to other types of
vocational qualifications in the United Kingdom. He found that in 2004–
2005, individuals who completed apprenticeships earned around 18% more
at Level 3 and 16% more at Level 2 than individuals whose highest qualification
is at Level 2, or at Level 1, respectively. As McIntosh acknowledged,
however, these estimates may be biased because employers may select the
best applicants, as there is excess demand for apprenticeships.
According to Lerman (2013: 12), “few rigorous studies have examined
how entering and completing apprenticeships in the United States affects
the education, job skills, non-academic skills, and job market outcomes of
young people.” Orr (1995) analyzed the effects of participating in a Wisconsin
youth apprenticeship in printing and found that apprentices earned
substantially higher earnings than those of a similar age. Ethnographic evidence
from 24 programs involving nearly 500 apprentices—with more than
300 hours of observation and more than 90 interviews with adult mentors,
staff, program directors, and students—suggested that apprentices learn
both noncognitive and occupational skills (Halpern 2009). Noncognitive
skills included problem solving, self-confidence, teamwork, discipline, and
the ability to take direction and take initiative, among others. Similarly, Rose
(2004) found that apprentices learn from their mentors and aim at mastering
an occupation and becoming part of a community practice.
Lee and Coelli (2010) analyzed the labor market returns to vocational
education in Australia using propensity score matching methods and found
substantial differences for individuals who completed 12 years of schooling
and those who did not. While the effect of participating in VET on wages
and employment probability was zero or even negative for the first group, it
was significantly positive for the latter group. This finding is in line with previous
literature, suggesting that vocational education options seem to provide
a safety against low labor market attachment.
Bonnal et al. (2002) studied the relative performance of apprenticeship
training versus school-based training in France. Correcting for the negative
selection of youths into apprenticeships, they found that apprenticeships
perform significantly better in integrating youths into their first employment
relationship. This advantage faded over time and was not associated
with higher wages. In addition, a recent study by Alet and Bonnal (2011)
showed that young people integrated into the apprenticeship system rather
than vocational schooling in France were more likely to successfully complete
their final exam and undertake further education.
One of the first studies to use an instrumental variables (IV) approach to
measure the returns of apprenticeships was that of Fersterer et al. (2008)
using Austrian data from 1975 to 1998. These authors exploited the different
lengths of apprenticeship periods completed for a group of apprentices in
failed firms. Perhaps surprisingly, they found that the estimated returns for
apprentices affected by the firm failure were low, at around 2.6%. These
returns were not very different from the OLS returns in the same sample, suggesting
that the selection problem was not particularly important in this case.
330 ILR Review
Evaluating the Dual System
As with apprenticeships, the dual system seems to outperform other types of
vocational schooling; but in this case, the benefits focus on employment
opportunities, as opposed to earnings, and are concentrated at the beginning
of individuals’ professional lives (Winkelmann 1996; Plug and Groot
1998; Parey 2009). In addition, recent causal estimates of the returns to dual
training find no differences in wage returns relative to the academic track
(Krueger and Pischke 1995; Winkelmann 1996; Fersterer and Winter-Ebmer
2003; Pischke and von Wachter 2008).
An extensive area of research exploits the coexistence of the dual VET
system and other types of vocational schooling within countries to infer
their relative effectiveness, and more specifically, the relevance of firmspecific
skills. For the case of Germany, studies by Winkelmann (1996) and
more recently Parey (2009) showed that participation in the dual VET had
a particular advantage compared with other options of the vocational
schooling system since it improved early labor market attachment and
showed a faster and more structured integration into the labor market. This
advantage faded over time though as other education participants found a
foothold in the labor market. Furthermore, these studies showed that the
fast initial transition did not hinge on finding employment in the training
firm, suggesting that firm-specific skills did not play a major role in the German
apprenticeship system. Investigating wage differentials, Parey (2009)
did not find any significant differences in return to the training options in
the early working life. Studies regarding the performance of apprenticeship
training versus school-based training by Plug and Groot (1998) showed similar
results for the Netherlands.
When comparing the dual system with purely academic studies, several
papers have found that wage returns to apprenticeship training on wages in
Germany and Austria range between 15 and 20%, based on ordinary least
squares (OLS) estimates (see Krueger and Pischke 1995; Winkelmann 1996;
Fersterer and Winter-Ebmer 2003). Given that dual vocational training lasts
around three years on average, this implies a return of approximately 5% a
year, which is not far from other forms of school-based education. Selection
into the dual system, however, once again raises concerns that OLS wage
estimates will be biased (Soskice 1994). In particular, Soskice found that much
heterogeneity was due to firm size, given that the wages for apprenticeshiptrained
workers strongly increase along with the training firm size.
Recently, Adda, Dustmann, Meghir, and Robin (2006) used a structural
approach to compare the career path of apprentices relative to unskilled
workers (pure on-the-job training). They modeled the entire career path,
starting with the original apprenticeship choice and following period-byperiod
employment transitions, job mobility, and wages. Using 15 years of
German data, they found that apprenticeships led to more wage growth
upfront, while wages in the pure on-the-job (unskilled) training grew at a
lower rate but for a longer time. Overall, they found that wages were higher
Vocatio nal Educatio n And Training In Industrialized Countries 331
following an apprenticeship qualification, with the job arrival rates very
high and destruction rates very low after some years of experience. These
findings contrast with Heckman’s (1993) suggestions that qualified apprentices
were harder to reallocate following a job loss.
Hanushek, Woessmann, and Zhang (2011) also analyzed the life-cycle
employment patterns of people with varying educational backgrounds using
data on the labor market experiences of individuals at various ages in 18
OECD countries, collected in the mid-1990s as part of an OECD-sponsored
venture. They found a higher initial employment rate for vocational education
participants at labor market entry, which reversed by the age of 50. These
results suggest that occupation-specific knowledge quickly becomes outdated
and thus leads to lower employment opportunities later in life. Nonetheless,
we need more reliable evidence concerning the perceived trade-off since
both occupation-specific labor market segregation as well as limited longterm
panel data impede the causal interpretation of these findings.
Conclusion and Policy Perspectives
In this article, we have classified vocational education and training (VET) in
industrialized countries into three distinct systems: 1) vocational and technical
schools, 2) formal apprenticeships, and 3) dual apprenticeship systems
combining school training with a firm-based approach. After reviewing the
particular strengths and weaknesses of these distinct types, we evaluated the
empirical evidence on their effectiveness. Beyond the general education
core, youth completing school-based VET do as well (and sometimes better)
than if they had instead remained in purely academic studies, especially
when a match can be made between the vocational training and the future
occupation of employment. Rigorous studies evaluating the effectiveness of
vocational training show that vocational training makes the transition to
gainful employment easier and may improve wage and employment outcomes,
in particular for low-ability youths and those working in low-skill
jobs. In several settings, an extension or prolongation of the academic
schooling for these youth does not result in additional gains in terms of
labor market entry, but instead may entail an increased risk of dropout.
Comparing across types of VET, the dual system, which is most prominent in
a number of continental European countries, is more effective than alternative
academic or training education at helping youth transition into employment,
though no wage differences are observed. Hence, it seems fair to say
that vocational training elements generate some added value both to training
employers and to the trainees, and facilitate the timely entry into more
stable and better-paid jobs at the beginning of the working life.
Yet, given that economic and institutional conditions are highly diverse
across industrialized countries, when it comes to furthering vocational education
and training, policymakers need to take into account the resources
available and to build on them. The ideal type of a dual VET model relies
on three preconditions:
332 ILR Review
1. Support from employers (and their associations). Employers and their
associations would benefit from considering training to be an investment
in favor of competitiveness, productivity, and sustainable employment
prospects, and thus could offer vocational training in a systematic and
2. Support from young people, their families, and trade unions. Young people,
their families, and trade unions would benefit from accepting
apprenticeships as a phase of lower earnings in exchange for skill acquisition.
This perspective would ensure that apprenticeships are not seen as
a second-best alternative to tertiary education.
3. Support from the government. The government would benefit, even if
indirectly, from providing vocational schooling, including funding, a
binding regulatory training framework (agreed with employers), and
external monitoring. Such an approach would ensure the timely adaptation
and labor market relevance of the curricula, and that the quality
standards of training provided within firms are met.
Governance and the involvement of core actors—in particular government
at different levels, employers’ associations, and unions—play a crucial role in
implementing dual VET. The organizational capacities of governments and
social partners are essential, given that a critical mass of supply and demand
of dual VET cannot be created artificially and needs time to develop.
This level of buy-in and involvement explains why a complex system such as
the dual vocational training has not been transplanted at a significant scale
outside continental Europe. But given that most countries have some forms
of vocational training—school-based, firm-based, or mixed—governments
and social partners can in principle start with those elements and reform their
systems to bring VET closer to employer and labor market needs. Experiences
with pilot projects, regional or sectoral clusters of employers, or traditional
apprenticeships can be instructive. The main challenge is to make on-the-job
learning more systematic and to bring school-based vocational training or
general education closer to labor market needs. In this respect, employer participation
and an increase in systematic vocational training are crucial. Hence,
elements of dual VET closer to employers’ demand and real-work experience
can be developed within other types of VET.
For example, if a number of employers in a given region or sector are
able to identify a joint interest in dual VET as a way to promote the productivity
of their workforce, it could be realistic to start with a dual VET cluster.
This would probably entail support from the government, which would
need to take a supporting role regarding vocational schooling parts and
initial employer investment in training capacities. The government would
partake in such an exchange for the expectation of lower youth unemployment.
A basic agreement regarding funding, management, and curricula
could be a good starting point in such a case.
Vocational education and training, however, should not be seen as a panacea
to combat high youth unemployment. Keep in mind that VET systems
Vocatio nal Educatio n And Training In Industrialized Countries 333
are appropriate to prepare young workers for only certain types of jobs.
VET may be less appropriate for specific high-tech sectors and to access the
highest managerial level positions in both the public and private sectors.
Here, general academic training is certainly relevant. To address the problem
of rising youth unemployment rates since 2008, VET is complementary
to structural reform policies that help revive the economy and reduce entry
barriers to employment such as dismissal protection or minimum wages.
Improving VET systems remains relevant even if structural and institutional
changes need to interact with attempts to increase certain types of job
opportunities (Cahuc, Carcillo, Rinne, and Zimmermann 2013).
But other elements may be equally important to creating labor market
conditions that are more conducive to a smooth transition from school to
work. In this context, along with the strengthening of vocational training,
the highly dualized structure of labor markets observed in countries such as
Italy, Spain, and France needs to be addressed. Where a strong divide occurs
between employment protection for permanent contracts on the one hand,
and the regulation of temporary contracts or self-employment on the other,
young people typically remain stuck in fixed-term employment spells or in
other forms of flexible employment. Employers are very reluctant to hire
youth on a permanent basis, particularly in the absence of vocational training.
In this respect, reducing the rigidity of dismissal protection while
increasing employment security for labor market entrants according to tenure
could be a solution. Practical work experience and training could then
further ease the successful integration of young people into stable jobs.
Finally, a recent line of research has focused on studying the life-cycle
impact of vocational education, motivated by the returns to vocational training
potentially varying at labor market entry compared to returns after
spending several years in the labor market. The differences lie in the fact
that skills have to adapt to technological change and to be mobile across
time, firms, occupations, and space. While some studies so far support the
conjecture that general education still provides a more solid base for such
adjustments (Hanushek et al. 2011), others suggest that vocational training
is better than pure on-the-job (unskilled) training (Adda et al. 2006). However,
the long-term counterfactuals of low-skilled individuals with general or
vocational education considering the risk of early unemployment have not
yet been well investigated. Future evaluations need to study the long-run
consequences, a challenge that also has to do with the (non-)availability of
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