Busting myths about VET: why it pays to do your own research before making education and training decisions

29 May 2017

Opinion piece

By Georgina Windley

Potential students, parents, and employers need clear and credible information to help them make decisions about choosing vocational education and training (VET). It doesn’t matter whether they are students fresh from school and making decisions about their future careers, job seekers who are looking to boost their skills to get back into the workforce, older workers who are looking to retrain, or employers who are looking at skill sets or courses for their staff; all need to have clear information to inform their decisions to invest in VET.

By its nature, VET is a varied sector, with around 4.5 million students undertaking training of some type (from short courses to 3-4 year qualifications). Of these students, 1.2 million are undertaking government-funded training. The sector caters to secondary school learners, older learners and existing workers; study can be part time or full time and there are work-based, campus-based and online study options. VET covers hundreds of occupations and thousands of qualifications, accredited courses and skills sets. There are over 4000 training providers ranging from large TAFE institutes to small private training providers, community providers and enterprise providers. VET also includes apprenticeships and traineeships and VET in schools. Given this diversity, it is not unexpected that the outcomes of VET vary.

And yet it seems the sector feels the need to justify itself. Take for example the recently published report by Wyman et al 2017 which aims to promote VET to young people by busting some of the myths associated with VET and comparing it with higher education.

But making comparisons between VET and higher education isn’t always straightforward. For example, much has been made in the media about the poor employment outcomes of university graduates. Graduates Careers Australia shows that 69% of graduates in 2015 were employed in a full time job four months after training. In contrast, around 78% of 2016 VET graduates were employed six months after they completed their training (which is similar to 2015 levels), but it is not clear what proportion of these are employed full time or part time. Looking at data from the ABS Education and Work, we can see that 80% of bachelor degree or above holders are employed, as are around 75% of certificate III and above holders; which shows that the employment benefits for university and higher level VET graduates aren’t all that dissimilar.

Each sector has its advantages and disadvantages, and both serve different purposes (acknowledging the overlap in the middle range of qualifications — advanced diplomas/diplomas). The two sectors complement each other and yet are different; and VET does not always have to compare itself with higher education. However, it is clear there is a growing need for accurate and insightful, curated information on the nature and outcomes of VET; information which informs students’ choices.

NCVER’s Student Outcomes Survey does this to some extent, and highlights the diversity of employment outcomes for VET graduates. For example, in 2016 younger graduates (aged 15-19 years) were less likely to be employed after training than older graduates (aged 20-64 years). When it comes to subject area studied, 90% of architecture and building graduates were employed after training, as were 76% of society and culture graduates and 47% of information technology graduates.

Similarly, the wages of VET graduates vary depending on whether a student was employed before training or not. For example, the median annual income for all graduates is $56 000, and for those not employed before training it is $44 000. Income also varies depending on what area graduates studied. For graduates who were not employed before training, the median annual income for engineering and related technologies is $47 000 and for food, hospitality and personal service graduates it is $39 000. While salaries and employment outcomes vary for different qualifications and occupations, the MySkills and JobOutlook websites provide more information to prospective students and workers on salary outcomes and job prospects for the different qualifications and occupations.

But employment and income outcomes are only part of the story. VET is characterised by high subject completion rates (83%), but low program completion rates (38%); meaning over 60% of students do not complete their qualification. The likelihood of completing is even lower for those doing lower-level certificates, Indigenous students, and some fields of education.

For apprentices and trainees, individual completion rates are 58% for those who commenced in 2011, so just over 40% of apprentices and trainees are not completing their training.

It isn’t easy to compare VET completion rates with higher education completion rates. Bachelor degrees are usually longer than VET qualifications and it takes longer to complete them. The four year completion rate for domestic bachelor students is 45%, but this increases to 74% over a nine year period.

There is a lot of research looking into improving training retention and completion rates in VET, particularly for apprentices and trainees. For apprentices, many of whom drop out in their first year, much of the effort is around providing mentoring and support for employers and apprentices, and encouraging the right preparation and research into training and career options.

But all prospective VET students could use this advice. It is important for students and employers to do their research before making a decision about training; it is important to find out about the intended industry and occupation, investigate the job and income prospects, consider the qualification and training options and compare training providers.

Students who have a clear understanding of the job they are interested in and the training that is required may well be better placed to finish their qualification and get more out of it. Making use of websites like MyFuture, MySkills, JobOutlook, Apprenticeships and Traineeships Information and QILT are important for informing all prospective students; regardless of whether they are interested in VET or higher education.

As the national custodian of data and research on VET, NCVER is well placed to provide information on the nature and benefits of VET, to ensure students have the best information to inform their choices when it comes to making decisions about education and training.