VET and higher education-qualified individuals in the same occupation undertake the same tasks “tend to start off at the same salary, but over time, those with higher education qualifications get further ahead.”

These are the findings of a recently published NCVER report entitled “VET and higher education pathways – do outcomes differ for the same occupation?” authored by Bridget Wibrow.

A bit about this research

The study draws on “data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey and interviews with 20 employers across four occupations — childcare workers, surveyors, graphic designers and medical laboratory technicians.” It seeks to explore “whether individuals with VET qualifications and those with higher education qualifications employed in the same occupations are undertaking the same tasks and receiving the same job outcomes, such as salary and career pathways.”

This article provides another perspective on one of the other articles in this issue which looks at the latest report from Holmsglen’s MacKenzie Research Institute.

VET students hit the ground running

The study found that when employers actively recruit for and employ both VET- and higher education-qualified individuals and assess applicants for positions “experience, skills and fit with the company are often more important than the qualification.” Let’s not forget this, because often when looking to employ someone, the questions employers are more concerned with are personal attributes, attitudes and ‘fit’ to their organisation.

In addition,

“Due to their technical nature, VET qualifications enable new workers to ‘hit the ground running’ when entering occupations compared with those with higher education qualifications. VET graduates have more experience in using tools, equipment and software in their courses.”

So, the practical nature of their training can be a real initial advantage. It gave them some skills so that they were seen as more job-ready in the short-term. A reminder of a VET story from some time ago is where HE science graduates seeking a job as a laboratory scientist or technician would THEN do the VET qualification because it gave then the technical skills and capabilities that their degree did not but which they really needed to ‘do the job’. As the report points out: “there is an oversupply of people with a science degree, so graduates use the medical laboratory technician role as a stepping stone to become a medical laboratory scientist.”

In the longer term it looks like HE students win out, but do they?

The HILDA data tell us that “graduates with VET qualifications have similar rates of employment, including full-time employment, and levels of job satisfaction as those with higher education qualifications.” That’s the good news. However, it also showed that, over time, “VET graduates tend to have lower wages, fewer opportunities for career progression and less autonomy than higher education graduates.”  This applied in all the occupational areas studied, except childcare.

The report suggests that:

“One reason for the differences in job outcomes and career pathways is the longer duration of a degree course and its ability to build additional skills and knowledge in areas such as management, research and underlying theories.”

Here’s the important point: it’s about pathways!

As the report points out it’s about effective “pathways from VET to higher education, which include credit for VET qualifications and experience in the workplace, are essential to enabling people to move between sectors, to build on previous study and to undertake lifelong learning.” However, one wonders if this ignores the value of HE to VET pathways. It does not have to be a one-way street!

Industries and occupations are changing, and often fast, and so maybe it’s also about better collaboration between VET and HE institutions and a re-think about how qualifications are designed and delivered?

Finally, the report calls for better and more accurate career guidance “to enable people to better understand the qualifications required for an occupation and the pathways available to them” for those starting their careers as well as those seeking to progress in their chosen occupation or career path. It’s about making informed choices and undertaking the lifelong learning needed to support those choices.