Vocational education prepares people for work in a trade, a craft, as a technician or in support of professionals. Craft vocations are usually based on manual or practical activities and are traditionally non-academic but related to a specific trade or occupation.

In Malta, just over a quarter of all students aged between 14 and 16 opt for vocational subjects. This is the fourth lowest rate in Europe. According to Eurostat, in figures released to mark the annual European Vocational Skills Week, in 2016 of the over 19,000 students in Maltese upper secondary schools, only 5,557 chose to study vocational subjects. While some 28 per cent of the students studied such subjects, the numbers were lower than those of the majority of EU member states, where the average was almost 50 per cent.

Despite the huge financial investments being made in education – this most vital area to Malta’s future development – these statistics are a sad indictment on educational standards and the skills gap in the Maltese labour market.

Why?  According to Malta’s ambassador for the European Vocational Skills Week, Elaine Pavia, there is still a stigma associated with the learning of vocational subjects, which could be preventing students from discovering their real talents. There were parents, she said, who failed to realise that attending certain vocational colleges, instead of aiming to go to university, could be just as fruitful in achieving successful and financially rewarding careers.

Institutions such as the Malta College of Arts Science and Technology (Mcast), the Institute of Tourism Studies and others in the private sector offer the same qualifications as a university.

The difference only lies in the way that lectures are delivered, with the emphasis being on a greater hands-on approach being adopted through apprenticeships and work placements. Moreover, vocational education and training (VET) provide opportunities for students who had no scholastic qualifications to further their education through Initial VET (IVET) qualifications, which open a variety of routes for the attainment of tertiary education for those who may have been late developers or whose secondary education had been interrupted.

Germany is renowned for its high quality vocational education and training. The key feature of its system is training programmes based around private firms accompanied by a school-based component of one or two days a week in which apprentices acquire secondary general education in core subjects like mathematics.

The German system also incorporates a supportive institutional infrastructure. Perhaps the key element is the many chambers of commerce, membership of which is compulsory for firms, which provide the vital links. German apprenticeship is genuinely employer-led in that firms or employer organisations undertake the vast bulk of the on-the-job training.

In Malta, there are clearly cultural and attitudinal obstacles currently stopping students having the talents and inclination to follow vocational subjects – such as work in the construction sector, aviation and maritime areas, beauticians or hairdressers – from doing so. But the message must be conveyed that it is not at all degrading to study them.

The German model of an employer-led vocational training system may hold real lessons for closer ties between schools, employers and future apprenticeships. Parents and guardians should encourage their children to consult career advisers at vocational colleges before choosing a particular career path. Teachers, too, have a vital guidance role to play.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial