Vocational education is having a moment in the United States, as President Trump has pushed for more job training programs in schools and the private sector. But these efforts require a shift in thinking about what the process looks like, one that isn't built solely on pushing students to either a college-bound or vocation-bound track, a longstanding criticism of vocational education efforts in the U.S.
One place to look for inspiration may be Finland. The country's vocational education and training (VET) is flexible and open not only to students after they complete nine years of school, but also to adults who are either looking for a career change or want to supplement their skills in a current occupation.
No dead ends
Finnish students complete nine years of comprehensive education, and it ends at the age of 16. Following the comprehensive education period, students have a choice: They can continue on an academic track (lukio) and prepare for university, or they can opt to begin vocational training (ammattikoulu). Either way, the process takes three years, and both sets of students can, following the completion of their respective tracks, apply for university or enter the workforce. Students can even do both at the same time if they want to.
That's right: Even those who choose vocational education can continue onto a university setting and obtain additional degrees at a polytechnic institute, or a university of applied sciences. Coursework at such institutes emphasizes the practical nature of a field. They can also stay at the vocational school and earn additional certifications in their selected field.
"Today, there are no dead ends within the [Finnish] education system," the European Center for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP) wrote in 2016 about the country's VET efforts. "In the late 1990s, upper secondary VET was placed on an equal footing with general upper secondary education in that the vocational track also provided eligibility for higher education." The video below explains this concept in more detail.
The split between academic and vocational students is close. In 2011, 43 percent of students opted for vocational training following the comprehensive education period. Tuition is free to VET programs, as it is with lukio track education; students do cover the cost of the course materials, however.
One reason for VET's success in Finland is the wide range of occupations for which training is offered. For most Americans, the idea of vocational education calls to mind welding, auto repair and cosmetology. Such training is offered in Finland, of course, but other fields, like education, tourism, cooking, social services, gardening and public transit, are also included in Finnish vocational education. VET courses are even available for home economics so people can learn to manage their households.
In addition to classroom work, apprenticeships and on-the-job training sessions are part of the process. Students are expected to complete at least six to eight week's worth of such work, and many VET schools, which are often managed by the city, offer opportunities corresponding to certain services. Students can gain experience in VET restaurants, salons, bakeries and the like, interacting with customers who receive discounted prices for their willingness to visit and support student-based enterprises.
Help for adults and immigrants
VET isn't just for teenagers and young adults deciding what they want to do with their lives, however. VET programs are available to adults as well. These adults may be keeping up with changes in their careers, or they may be looking to change their careers entirely, transitioning from being an electrician to a baker. VET programs can help them achieve those goals. These courses may cost money for adults, between 50 and 60 euros, but many are free of charge.
For immigrants, VET services are available, in addition to integration training that provides Finnish or Swedish language classes, cultural knowledge of Finland and career counseling services. Immigrants may even take Finnish language classes while they take vocational classes to help speed along the process of finding employment in the country.
A 2017 survey of VET students found high satisfaction with the process. Sixty-four percent those who responded to the survey said they felt the vocational skills they learned as a result of their training was sufficient for work, and another 70 percent felt confident they could find work following graduation as a result of the skills they learned.