A booming economy creates demand for services that unless correctly managed, can give rise to inflation that could well undermine future economic growth. The number of cars on our roads, for instance, has raised the demand for car mechanics, car body repairers and sprayers.
I recently met a car mechanic who told me he could not find suitable candidates for the vacancies he has in his workshop. He insisted that he was not only after qualified mechanics but also young people who had an aptitude for the trade and were prepared to learn the ropes through on-the-job training.
This mechanic – who is in his mid-50s – insisted that if this situation persists for long, he will retire and close down his business. He frets that with demand for car repairs and servicing outstripping supply of qualified technical people prepared to work in this area, the cost of servicing cars will start to accelerate, making the cost of maintaining a car prohibitive for most people.
Vocational education suffers from an image problem in individual countries including Malta. Our vocational education system is adequate for specific trades and skill sets demanded by the economy, but is lacking in other areas. We need to debunk some myths that still exist in our community about the value of vocational training. We also need to adopt a new mindset on how we can raise vocational educational at least to the same level of academic preparation.
Many still consider vocational education as being inferior to university academic training
Many still consider vocational education as being inferior to university academic training. What is even worse is that many parents still equate vocational training with the conviction that this is the only route open for students who fail to make their mark in traditional primary and secondary school education.
This misconception is not without a sad basis of reality. In the past, and to a certain extent even today, students who failed their compulsory education phase by not acquiring any formal qualification or even employment related skills opted to drop out of the system. They then usually join the black economy or choose a vocational educational course not out of the conviction that this would open up good career prospects, but to appease their worried parents.
Vocational education needs to be reinvented. It should be presented as a viable option for young people who prefer a hands-on type of training that, however, does not diminish the importance of core academic subjects like mathematics, English, IT and basic physical sciences. No tradesperson can make progress in their career if they do not have a good grounding in these fundamental subjects. Another misconception is that teachers in trade schools need not be more qualified than other educators in academic training institutions. Good educators in vocational training need to combine practical experience of the trade they instruct, as well as a sound grounding in pedagogy and substantial formal qualifications in the subjects they teach.
In my experience, what we lack most in our vocational education system is the presence of educators who before entering the lecture room or workshop have in fact spent time working in the real-world business.
Admittedly, it is difficult to find educators who combine practical experience with academic qualifications. One of the solutions is to make sure that graduates working in trade schools should be paid as much as similarly qualified graduates employed in industry. This requirement brings with it the need for educators in trade schools, as indeed in all schools, to accept that they be thoroughly assessed on an annual basis as part of their employment conditions.
Long holidays and light touch enforcement of management discipline in State-run schools should not be what motivates ambitious young graduates to choose to teach as a career. Our trade schools also need to rope in support of industry leaders, as has been done in specific areas like aircraft maintenance.
Rather than grouping all trade schools under one administrative umbrella, it is worth experimenting with pilot projects where particular trade schools are given some autonomy which enables their management to find ways of breaking the traditional mould of the way a trade school should be run. Parents could also be given a more significant role in trade school lives, even if some students may have reached adulthood while still completing their vocational education.
After decades of educational reform plans and many metres of bookshelves stacked with unproductive educational reports, we need to pass to the stage of reinventing the way we train our young people.