With the UK skills gap at a 12-year high, raising the level, currency and pursuit of educational qualifications is a priority for policymakers. But while academic standards and graduate output have risen, vocational education has languished - at what expense to the economy and to talented, but less academic, young people?
The explosion of graduates entering the labour force has done little to improve productivity over the past 15 years. There is a danger that a graduate-heavy labour force will lead to the attrition of job opportunities for less academic youngsters. At the same time, employers remain dissatisfied with young people's basic skills and business awareness.
So how should employers find the best young talent? Should they employ a graduate with a degree but little or no experience? Or should they be growing their own talent in-house by promoting "learn and earn" routes to higher education qualifications?
During a research fellowship for HTI, a social enterprise that works with education, business and government to enhance the employability of young people, I talked to employers from many sectors. They placed equal value on vocational and academic qualifications. But many believed that graduates often lack the practical know-how and cultural fit. In my paper for HTI, Learn as you Earn? Destinations for 18- to 19-year-olds, I explored the apparent conflict between the government's university-biased target to steer 50% per cent of young people into higher education by 2010 and the expected shortage of vocational skills that employers need at levels 2 and 3.
Skills surveys reveal that four out of every five new jobs have vocational qualification requirements below degree level. This suggests a need to expand level 3 routes to qualifications.
A big issue is the predominantly academically biased route to higher education. National vocational qualifications (NVQs) have struggled to form an effective platform for entry to HE, with less than 1% of advanced apprentices progressing to higher qualifications. Unless the balance is redressed, more young people may be deterred from vocational routes at level 3.
Foundation degrees, vocationally oriented HE qualifications, were introduced in 2001 in an attempt to address this issue, but they are not well understood in the private sector. The Learning and Skills Council is strongly committed to tackling the skills gap by promoting apprenticeships and through the roll-out of the National Employer Training Programme. The latter initiative will help to address level 2 skills, but where is the long-term thinking on plugging the level 3 skills gap?
I discovered that employers of all sizes are keen to invest in young people. Many believe that embedding a "learn and earn" culture can help to create an employee better attuned to business. But deciphering the qualifications framework and knowing where to find support is confusing. Employers are also frustrated by their inability to find local FE institutions that match their needs. They stress the need for closer partnerships between schools, colleges, sector skills councils and employers.
Colleges, too, have their own frustrations, notably in the areas of careers information and advice and work-related learning.
In my own college, the quality of university promotional material is far superior to careers information coming out of business. Sector skills councils need to do something about this. They also need to offer more support to careers advisers in schools.
Work-related learning is another area of tension. Employers are supportive of extended work-related learning, but sceptical about the practicalities and critical of the system. Schools and colleges are also keen on the principle, but frustrated by lack of business commitment.
There are some clear messages for FE colleges. As the linchpin between schools, employers and the sector skills councils, we can do more to promote our strengths, particularly in developing the skills of less academic pupils. We need to work harder at building relations between employers and schools and to work more collaboratively with employers.
With the rising cost of university education, little or no evidence that more graduates equal higher productivity, and critical vocational skills shortages, the time has never been better to promote "learn and earn" routes to higher education.
· Dean O'Donoghue is key skills manager at Tamworth and Lichfield College. Learn as you Earn? Destinations for 18-to 19-year-olds is at www.hti.org.uk