The global COVID-19 crisis is imposing sudden and unprecedented pressures on governments and industries around the world, with virtually all sectors affected. However, vocational education and training (VET) systems are being uniquely impacted, not only in relation to how they provide VET in the context of current social distancing and travel restrictions, but also in terms of how they are being forced to anticipate and adapt to what could very well be a significantly changed labour market in the coming months and years.
The ongoing lockdown in many countries has interrupted learning in both workplaces and the classroom. It has been particularly disruptive to work-based learning, including apprenticeships, and systems used to assess skills and ultimately award qualifications. While in the short term this presents serious challenges for VET teachers, trainers and learners alike, the lockdown may ultimately result in stronger and more resilient VET systems if the right choices are made today. In particular, if the lockdown continues over a long period of time, wholesale closures of education and training institutions may force learning providers to adopt system and technology innovations that will expand the use of distance learning and distance or alternative assessments.
VET in a time of crisis
With very few exceptions, schools all around the world were closed, affecting almost 1.6 billion learners (over 90% of total enrolled learners) from pre-primary to tertiary education, including VET. If we take into account adult learners in training primarily or partially, the number would be even higher. Many countries have quickly created or adapted digital platforms to replace school-based learning, to varying degrees of success. However, work-based learning programmes (WBL), including apprenticeships, are often much more difficult to provide and assess at a distance.
Disruption in VET: In the context of lockdowns, social distancing and travel restrictions, the main challenge for existing VET students, including apprentices, is not being able to learn in classrooms, school workshops or workplaces. In some occupational fields, theory can be taught and learned online, but practical aspects cannot be effectively delivered because of a lack of access to tools, materials, equipment and machinery.
Cuts in apprenticeship offers: An economic recession is widely anticipated and has already begun in some countries, posing particular challenges in sectors such as hospitality, tourism, aviation and leisure services where demand is reaching historical lows. While this primarily means that some professions are unable to work, it also means that by extension they are unable to offer or maintain apprenticeships due to not only a lack of staff to provide training, but also a lack of financial resources.
Both of these effects may be relatively invisible in terms of skills and labour market supply over the short term, and indeed it may appear that supply is abundant in a time of layoffs and furloughs, but as the economy starts to recover, shortages of skilled workers will likely become apparent, thereby hindering the recovery process. The immediate concern of countries today is rightfully how to overcome the immediate crisis. But decisions taken today can have long-term implications, so policymakers also need to ask themselves how VET systems can be improved through these decisions and ultimately emerge from this crisis even stronger, more responsive, and more resilient than before. If they have the capacity to do so, countries should take the opportunity to review their VET systems and track how they are responding, or not, to the current situation.