4. Vocational education and training to support transitions

Structural changes in the labour market increase the chances that workers will need to change jobs or are faced with significant changes within their job. As discussed in Chapter 1, many jobs are likely to be impacted by the digital transition, as a variety of tasks can potentially be automated. Likewise, the green transition will change production and working methods, as well as lead to job losses in certain (polluting) sectors. As such, most individuals will not be doing the exact same job for their entire career. Such changes call for individuals who are resilient and can adapt to new circumstances. This requires a solid set of transversal skills and a willingness to learn.

VET typically prepares individuals for the labour market, and in particular for one field, sector or occupation. VET programmes differ in how broad or narrow they are. Broader programmes have the advantage of preparing individuals for a number of different job roles, which can also make them more adaptable in light of change. However, in contrast to more narrow programmes, they may not make learners job-ready and therefore make the transition from school to work less smooth. Related to this, VET programmes also differ in terms of the transversal content they include, with some focussing fairly narrowly on occupation-specific skills, and other also developing a range of transversal skills – including foundational skills. Such transversal skills can help individuals navigate changing labour markets and societies.

Being adaptable necessarily also implies being able and willing to continue to learn. As discussed in the previous chapters, lifelong learning becomes increasingly important. This requires individuals to have sufficient opportunities to participate in learning – including in VET-, as well as a readiness to learn. Without solid foundations to build on, adults cannot effectively engage in upskilling and reskilling. Therefore, all individuals need to have strong foundational skills, like literacy and numeracy, including those who come from VET. In addition to this solid basis, individuals also need to have a lifelong learning mindset, i.e. an understanding of the importance of lifelong learning and interest to engage in it.

Navigating change can be difficult. Helping individuals, both young and older, understand ongoing and expected changes, and the implications they can have for them, is essential. Making sure they understand which tools are available to help them navigate these changes is equally important. As such, career guidance can be a powerful to help individuals understand how labour markets and societies are changing and how this affects skill needs, and support them in making informed education, training and career choices.

This chapter looks at how VET can contribute to developing strong transversal skills, including foundational skills. It also looks at pathways between VET and higher levels of learning to ensure that individuals who want to further develop their skills -potentially later in life- have the possibility of doing so. Lastly, the chapter also takes a close look at career guidance for young people and adults, and in particular how career guidance can be integrated into VET and guide future learners towards VET options.

As learners in VET typically prepare for a specific occupation, set of occupations or sector, transversal skills may be less prominent in VET curricula than in general education programmes. This could have implications for their adaptability and resilience down the line. Data on transversal skills are hard to come by, given the complexity of defining and assessing many of those skills. Nonetheless, the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, PIAAC) sheds light on three important transversal skills: literacy, numeracy and digital problem-solving. Evidence from that survey shows that among young adults, those without an upper-secondary degree and those with upper-secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary VET qualifications (as their highest qualification) have the weakest literacy, numeracy and digital problem-solving proficiency (OECD, 2020[1]). For example, across OECD countries on average 15% of young adults with a vocational qualification lack basic literacy skills (Figure 4.1), compared to 12% among those with a general qualification at the same level and only 5% among those with a tertiary qualification. Only in Canada, New Zealand and the United States young adults with VET qualifications are slightly more proficient in literacy than their general education counterparts. In these countries, fully fledged VET programmes mostly exist at the postsecondary level, implying that these graduates have been through more years of education and therefore had more exposure to general subjects than VET graduates in most other countries. Data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (as shown in Chapter 3) also show that 15-year-olds in pre-vocational or vocational programmes have weaker reading performance than those in general programmes.

As such, the PIAAC data suggest that VET graduates may have weaker transversal skills than those coming from other parts of the education system. This could be due to transversal skills getting limited attention in VET curricula, but also because of gaps in these skills when learners enter VET. The gap could also be partially explained by young adults having more limited opportunities to develop these skills after having left the education system and entered the labour market. All of these potential reasons call for increased attention to transversal skills development, at various stages of the life cycle.

Upper secondary education is the last time the full student cohort is in a highly structured school setting where policy makers have considerable responsibility for the curriculum (Stronati, 2023[2]).1 At this stage, countries have a duty to ensure that, by the time they leave school, all young people have been supported to develop the competencies they will need to succeed in the adult world and working life. At the same time, upper secondary systems need to be responsive to students’ interests and abilities, to keep young people engaged and enable them to succeed in their final stage of schooling. To meet these objectives, countries need to provide some degree of specialisation and choice in upper secondary education.

Stratification or diversity across programmes entails students being separated into one, two or multiple different upper secondary programmes, usually classified by orientation (general or vocational). Most countries that distinguish between general and vocational education offer multiple upper secondary programmes. The most frequent number of programmes across OECD countries is three, and the most common combination is one general programme and two vocational programmes. In countries where vocational education is well-developed, as in Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland, upper secondary education offers more than one vocational programme. These systems have a high level of stratification or diversity across programmes. Countries with a comprehensive system, such as Canada and the United States, have a low level of stratification across programmes, since they do not sort students into different programmes. Even in these countries, students are able to choose vocational options within their comprehensive upper secondary education.

OECD countries most frequently start selection at the beginning of upper secondary education, with the most frequent age of selection being 15. Selection into different pathways might occur very early, as in Austria and Germany (at around age 10), or, as is most common, not until the end of lower secondary education, as in Finland and Norway (at around age 15 or 16). In other countries, such as New Zealand and the United States, there is no formal differentiation between programmes at the upper secondary level, although students in these countries may pursue different levels, options and specialisations within programmes. There is a correlation between when selection occurs and the number of programmes in upper secondary education (Figure 4.2). In most countries offering a higher number of upper secondary programmes, the age at first selection is lower, as in Austria, Italy and the Netherlands. On the other hand, countries with little or no difference between programmes select students at a later age or not at all, as in Chile, England (United Kingdom), Finland, Norway, Sweden and the United States.

Irrespective of the number of programmes and the age of selection, all learners in upper-secondary education need to be able to develop the foundational skills required in labour markets and societies. As such, curricula of upper secondary programmes typically contain some compulsory or core content. The core represents those subjects or competencies that are compulsory for all students at the upper secondary level. Countries can define the core by using compulsory subjects that all students must take or by embedding competencies in the curriculum across different disciplines. The core aims to ensure that all students complete upper secondary with a specific and coherent set of skills and competences. In nearly all countries, all upper secondary students are required to study the mother-tongue language and mathematics. Some upper secondary systems provide core content at different levels. In Sweden, for example, all upper secondary programmes require a set of core subjects, such as English, history, physical education and health, mathematics, science, knowledge of religion, civics and Swedish, and students can choose courses at different levels, each of which deepens and advances a particular subject. Providing subjects at different levels enables systems to cater to different learning levels and reflect different aspirations for the future.

While a small number of countries define a small core curriculum or requirements based on minimum competences in literacy and numeracy, as in Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, the majority of countries have established a wider set of core subjects or content that students need to cover at the upper secondary level (see Table 4.1 for some examples). A wider core tends to limit choice and ensure that students study a broad range of subjects. In contrast, in countries where students study fewer subjects, they tend to go into greater depth.

In countries where students are tracked into general and vocational programmes, core subjects may be the same across the programmes or they may differ substantially. In France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Sweden, the core curriculum covers the same subjects for students studying in general and vocational education. A common practice for countries in this group is to offer general and vocational programmes with the same common core and then add a group of compulsory subjects according to the specialisation of each programme (Le Métais, 2002[4]). The additional group of subjects varies depending on the orientation. In vocational education, it often includes professional subjects such as mechanics, health, tourism and technology, depending on the area of specialisation. In Sweden, for example, 30% of the content across vocational and general programmes is the same, which corresponds to the core or compulsory content across both programmes. Providing this degree of shared content across the programmes increases permeability between pathways since students share the same subjects, and it ensures that all students complete upper secondary with the same base of skills and competencies (EURYDICE, 2022[5]).

In countries like in Austria, Chile, Finland and the Netherlands the core subjects in the general orientation are different from those in the vocational orientation. In Chile and Norway, there are only two or three differences between the two orientations. In Australia and the Netherlands, the distinction is more significant, with four to six academic subjects in general programmes and three academic subjects plus specific professional content in vocational programmes. In some countries, even if the core subjects across orientations are the same, the time spent on these subjects and the content differ. In Italy, for example, English is a core subject in both orientations, but in general programmes it includes learning the language, the culture and the literature while in vocational programmes it entails learning the language and the vocabulary associated with the specialisation of the programme (MIUR, 2018[6]). In the Netherlands, students in the general track learn Dutch language and literature, while those in the vocational track focus on literacy skills. In the general track, students are exposed to social studies, while in the vocational track the focus is on citizenship and career management skills (EURYDICE, 2022[5]). Adapting content to each specific programme might help vocational students to build more real-world skills and increase engagement and participation as students can see the value of learning. The main challenge is to ensure that all upper secondary students still have strong foundation skills.

Based on evidence from Swedish and Danish VET graduates, it has been shown that the amount of cognitively challenging subjects at the upper-secondary level gives a lasting imprint on literacy proficiency later in life (Rasmusson et al., 2019[7]). Stronger cognitive skills could help adults in the labour market, by making them more adaptable and facilitating participation in further training opportunities. Hanushek et al. (2017[8]) indeed suggest that the weaker labour market outcomes of VET graduates later in life could be linked to weaker basic skills and therefore limited adaptability. Nonetheless, other research on the reforms of Swedish VET programmes finds no evidence that having attended a longer and more general vocational programme is associated with a reduced risk of experiencing unemployment, nor with a higher probability of entering higher education or higher earnings later in life (Hall, 2012[9]; 2016[10]). The evidence also suggests that these longer VET programmes could have a negative effect on outcomes of students who enter these programmes with low levels of skills, as it increased their probability of dropping out of school (Hall, 2012[9]).

Finding the right balance between general and vocational subjects is not an easy task. Firstly, when reinforcing the general component in VET curricula it should be ensured that this does not have detrimental effects on the motivation of students. Some students might have chosen the vocational track because of negative experiences within a standard school-based setting, and might therefore be demotivated by curricula that have a substantial school-based academic component. One way to potentially overcome this issue is to integrate foundational or core skills with vocational training. In the United States, the Math-in-CTE (career and technical education) programme brings together CTE and maths teachers to develop a curriculum map that identifies the CTE concepts and intersecting math concepts that are naturally embedded within the CTE curriculum (OECD, 2010[11]). Secondly, when adding general subjects to VET curricula results in a longer study duration, the potential benefits of such a reform should be carefully weighed against the expected (opportunity) costs. Ensuring that VET graduates have strong foundational skills is not the sole responsibility of the VET system, but also of the broader initial education system. Strong foundational skills need to be developed already in the early years of education, before students enter the VET stream. This will help avoid that those who enter VET have already accumulated substantial gaps in foundational skills during their early education years.

In most countries, students start to specialise at the beginning of upper secondary education and progressively develop their specialisation as they move through the cycle. A number of countries provide students with space to try out different subjects at the beginning of upper secondary before specialisation begins, so that they can see what they like. In France, all students have an orientation year (called second), which marks the start of upper secondary education. This year helps students to make the choice between programmes and delays the age of specialisation so that it corresponds with the end of compulsory schooling at age 16. In Italy, the first two years of upper secondary education (age 14-16), general and vocational programmes also have a very similar general core. This provides flexibility if students want to move across programmes and also means that students choose their specialisation at age 16, which corresponds to the end of compulsory education. In the United Kingdom systems, where the upper secondary cycle is comparatively long, students have a first phase at age 14-16, when they study a broad range of subjects (9-11), culminating in national examinations, the GCSEs. This is followed by a second phase at age 16-18, when students study a far smaller range of subjects, culminating in another set of national examinations, the A-Levels or T-Levels. As students move through upper secondary education, the range of subjects that they study often falls, in line with increasing specialisation. In Denmark, for example, the main vocational programme (EUD or erhvervsuddannelse) starts with a basic course, in which students choose one of four specialisations in the second year: i) food, agriculture and hospitality; ii) technology, construction and transportation; iii) administration, commerce and business service; and iv) care, health and pedagogy. After completing the basic course, they move on to the main course in which they can choose among around 100 fields.

Internationally, all vocational systems provide students with a specialisation as well as a choice over their specialisation. In vocational systems, specialisations enable students to acquire specific professional or technical skills, which provide the foundations for employment or further study. In countries with multiple vocational programmes and highly developed vocational systems (such as Austria, Germany and the Netherlands), specialisations can be more tailored to specific professions or categories of professions. In systems with fewer vocational programmes, specialisations tend to be broader and less specific, since they need to prepare students to enter both employment and further education.

Countries differ strongly in the number of specialisations they provide in VET – reflecting different choices in how narrow or specialised the training should be and differences in labour market demand. In Sweden, for example, upper secondary vocational education offers only 12 possible vocational qualifications and around 4-5 specialisms per qualification (Skolverket, 2023[12]). In Switzerland, upper-secondary VET students can choose from 245 occupations. For post-secondary VET, there are about 420 federal examinations (260 federal professional examinations, and 160 advanced federal professional examinations), as well as 55 study programmes in vocational education institutions. In Estonia, there are 500-600 vocational qualifications at all levels. This is still relatively low compared to around 1 200 vocational qualifications (including some at higher level) in Australia. While differences between countries reflect the coverage of VET in terms of sectors and occupations, they also reflect differences in how narrowly defined vocational programmes and qualifications are.

A very large number of qualifications may mean that qualifications are defined narrowly to match the needs of a handful of employers, limiting labour market mobility of the qualification holder. Overlapping qualifications undermine the clear signalling of which qualification is appropriate for particular jobs. Very broad qualifications, while providing a range of general and transferable skills, may not make the person immediately employable. For example, in Sweden, where the course requirements are broad, an additional qualification is often required once initial vocational training is completed – for example a trade certificate as a carpenter or plumber (Boverket, 2023[13]).

Various countries have been broadening their vocational programmes and qualifications (and hence reducing the number of specialisations) in response to rapidly changing labour markets. Broader programmes can make learners more adaptable in a changing labour market and allow for more flexibility. Finland’s recent reform of upper secondary VET, for example, reduced the number of qualifications from 351 to 164 (of which 42 are initial vocational qualification, and the others are further and specialist vocational qualifications). The initial vocational qualifications consist of vocational units and common units, with the former being either compulsory or optional. In the Republic of Türkiye (hereafter ‘Türkiye’), recent reforms aim to reduce the number of VET fields from 55 to 47 and the number of branches from 203 to 109, in an effort to increase flexibility and occupational mobility (Canbal et al., 2020[14]). As of July 2023, there are 53 fields and 114 branches in secondary vocational education institutions, while Vocational Training Centers have 38 fields and 192 branches.

As labour markets and societies change, transversal skills become increasingly important to navigate these changes and remain adaptable and flexible. Moreover, many transversal skills, such as collaboration, problem-solving and creativity, are hard to automate and therefore become crucial complements to more technical skills in labour markets that are increasingly automated. Indeed, Lassébie and Quintini (2022[15]) find that, thanks to important advances in automation technologies driven by artificial intelligence (AI), some skills and abilities previously identified as bottlenecks to automation, such knowledge of fine arts, several psychomotor abilities, reading comprehension, deductive and inductive reasoning skills, fluency of ideas and scheduling skills, are now more susceptible to automation. However, they also find that significant bottlenecks to automation remain, in particular for skills related to complex problem-solving, high-level management and social interaction – which can hardly be automated given the current state of technological developments.

Transversal skills are defined and labelled in various ways. They typically refer to skills that cut across disciplines or occupations. Various countries have developed dedicated frameworks for such skills, as is the case for “employability skills” in the United States and “meta-skills” in Scotland (United Kingdom) (Box 4.1). Some countries have sought to systematically integrate transversal skills of all types into their qualifications, often by identifying a set of ‘key competences’ which many or most vocational programmes (and general education) programmes are expected to develop (Field, 2023[16]).

For example, in Australia, training packages include not only occupation-specific skills, but also the foundation skills that support participation in the workplace, in the community and in education and training. Foundation skills include: reading, writing, oral communication, numeracy, learning skills, problem-solving skills, initiative and enterprise, teamwork, planning and organising skills, self-management, and technology skills (Australian Government. Department of Education, Skills and Employment, 2022[17]). Accredited courses must identify foundation skills relevant to the course outcomes and each unit of competency requires the inclusion of information relating to the foundation skills within the unit. Unlike some other countries, Australian training packages do not define required course work (e.g. number of hours in mathematics, English) but the foundation skills are described in terms of the ability to perform a job task. For example, the training package for Certificate II (ISCED level 2) requires students to be able to Read and interpret routine information on written job instructions and standard operating procedures’, and ‘Use basic numeracy skills for undertaking comparison measurements’ (Australian Government, 2013[18]).2

In Denmark, the regulations for all vocational programmes emphasis the importance of transversal skills (Ministry of Children and Education. Denmark, 2021[19]): “The programme must contribute to the development of the pupil's and apprentice's character formation, professional pride and ability to take independent positions, cooperate and communicate. Training shall also promote professional and social problem-solving skills, the development of initiative, flexibility and a sense of quality, and the development of the basic skills of learners and apprentices, in particular in mathematics, reading, oral and written communication and information technology.”. Furthermore, regulations for each programme define how transversal skills are applied in the workplace. For example, “the apprentice should be able to manage day-to-day operations, facilitate good cooperation on the basis of knowledge of ethnic and cultural differences and communicate effectively with employees, customers and other business partners”.

Developing transversal skill among learners often requires different approaches than when developing occupation-specific or technical skills. Chapter 5 zooms in on pedagogical approaches that can be considered more suitable for the development of certain transversal skills and the technologies that can support this type of teaching and learning. Some countries make dedicated resources available for teachers and schools. For example, the United States Department for Education developed tools, media and resources related to its Employability Skills Framework (Box 4.1) to support educators, administrators and employers in making use of the framework. Resources include sample interview questions aligned to the Employability Skills Framework for use by employers and educators to help job candidates describe their employability skills in an employment interview; an instruction planning tool for reflecting on the extent to which employability skills are currently integrated into education and training programmes and identifying opportunities to further emphasise skills where there are gaps; and an assessment selection tool that describes criteria for selecting an employability skills assessment and provides a worksheet for comparing assessment resources to selection criteria. The Scottish meta-skills framework (Box 4.1) is accompanied by a toolkit -developed through consultation with educators and other partners- to create a suite of resources that support practitioners embed skills in a manageable and sustainable way. It includes, among other things, a progression framework with examples of how meta-skills can be developed through different levels of education; professional learning resources to support practitioners with understanding and implementing; lesson plans; and lesson inserts, i.e. bite-size activities and videos that can be used by practitioners to develop and contextualise meta-skills.

The need for workers to reskill and upskill throughout life – particularly in a context of rapid digital transformations – has put lifelong learning at the forefront of the political agenda in most industrialised countries. As discussed in Chapter 3, adults participate relatively little in upskilling and reskilling opportunities, and those with vocational qualifications are among the groups with the lowest participation rates. Adults typically face various barriers to engage in training, and governments can tackle some obstacles – such as time or financial constraints – using short term measures. However, only adopting a lifelong perspective can enable them to overcome other obstacles related to the disposition to learn and a lack of foundation skills originating from previous stages of an individual’s education.

Becoming an effective lifelong learner involves a cumulative process, which starts in infancy and is influenced thereafter by the institutional arrangements that provide opportunities to learn (OECD, 2019[22]). Learning at any stage of the life cycle builds on learning and skills acquired at previous stages (Cunha et al., 2006[23]). Hence, setting strong foundations early in life is essential to cultivate lifetime learning. As discussed above, not all VET programmes have an equally important focus on foundational skills. While developing strong cognitive skills – such as literacy or numeracy – is important, previous work by the OECD has shown that non-cognitive skills, as well as strong attitudes and dispositions to learn, constitute the necessary foundations for future learning (OECD, 2019[22]). Some emotional skills and personality traits, such as conscientiousness and openness, can create a favourable disposition to learn later in life. Likewise, some attitudes, such as self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation, help individuals set goals for their learning endeavours.

While individual attitudes and dispositions to learn mostly develop early in life – starting with kindergarten and evolving throughout the schooling years – their benefits carry over into adulthood. In fact, individuals who have positive learning attitudes are more prone to engage in further learning throughout life (OECD, 2019[24]; Tuckett and Field, 2016[25]). Early education and compulsory schooling are therefore critical stages, where all students are given the chance to develop strong lifelong learning attitudes (LLLAs) and close monitoring of individual progress ensures that any arising gaps are rapidly identified and closed through timely interventions.

Using data from PISA, OECD (2021[26]) shows that 15-year-old pupils who are endowed with stronger attitudes and dispositions to learn tend to perform better at school. They also develop higher educational and career expectations than their peers with weaker attitudes. This, in turn, could exert a positive influence on their choice to enrol in further education, and on their labour-market outcomes later in life.

OECD (2021[26]) analysis highlights the existence of a strong link between stocks of attitudes that are accumulated at different stages of the education process. Hence, a greater endowment of lifelong learning attitudes in adolescence probably results from both contemporaneous efforts and interventions by teachers and families, and prior investments. Therefore, education policy makers should design comprehensive strategies targeting different stages of the learning process (starting with early education) to promote positive lifelong learning attitudes throughout schooling – including in VET.

Together with parents, teachers play a key role in furthering children’s and adolescents’ cognitive and non-cognitive abilities. Motivating students to become active learners has become a major concern of educators and teachers. OECD (2021[26]) analysis shows that 15-year-olds’ lifelong learning attitudes are positively associated with specific teaching styles, especially teacher enthusiasm and teacher stimulation of reading. For instance, teacher enthusiasm has a particularly strong relationship with students’ motivation to master tasks and develop ambitious learning goals, as well as their self-efficacy and enjoyment of reading (Figure 4.3). Consistently across countries, the results suggest that students display higher levels of lifelong learning attitudes when they perceive their teachers as inspiring and enthusiastic about the material presented in class. Chapter 2 already highlighted the importance of equipping VET teachers with a solid set of pedagogical and industry-specific skills and knowledge and the need for teachers coming from industry to develop the capability to effectively transfer their skills and knowledge to learners. Chapter 5 includes a discussion of innovative pedagogical approach in VET.

In the past, vocational upper secondary programmes were often designed to provide a route to a skilled job, perhaps a lifetime occupation. Today VET is often an intermediary qualification, on which individuals will build as their career develops. Many bright and ambitious students in vocational programmes will have their eyes set on tertiary studies to complete before entering the labour market. Others will start their careers and seek to pursue higher level programmes to progress in their sector or change careers. Evidence shows that jobs held by VET graduates are more at risk of automation than those held by tertiary graduates (Vandeweyer and Verhagen, 2020[28]; OECD, 2020[1]). In the context of fast-changing skills needs and automation, VET graduates increasingly need to be prepared to pursue further learning, including at higher levels of education. This section therefore looks at progression pathways between initial VET and tertiary education.

Countries have adopted various approaches to building pathways from upper-secondary VET to higher levels of learning. Most OECD countries offer vocational programmes as one of the pathways in upper secondary education (as discussed above), with different opportunities for progression to higher levels. Many countries have a single vocational track at upper secondary level and all VET graduates have direct access to all levels of tertiary education, similarly to their peers from general upper secondary programmes. Examples include Chile, Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, Korea, Lithuania, Portugal and Türkiye. In practice, this often means eligibility to those programmes, and there are often additional selection procedures. Access to bachelor level programmes is sometimes restricted to a specific sector of tertiary education, often part of the “higher VET” sector or a distinct institutional sector with focus on applied, professionally-oriented learning (see Chapter 2): in Germany, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Switzerland VET graduates can access professional programmes but not universities. In some countries VET graduates can access short-cycle tertiary education, which is mostly professional in nature. These programmes develop higher level occupational skills and can also serve as a bridge to bachelor’s level. For example, in Austria VET graduates have direct access to short-cycle tertiary programmes only (which are in effect a continuation of upper secondary VET). Upon completion, graduates gain eligibility to universities and universities of applied sciences. Similarly, in Chile graduates of higher technician programmes at ISCED level 5 may progress to four-year programmes offered within the same institution. In Denmark, business academy graduates in some programmes have the option to pursue a top-up degree of 1.5 years and obtain a professional bachelor’s degree. In the United Kingdom Higher National Diploma graduates may enter the third year of a bachelor’s degree programme (OECD, 2022[29]). But not all short-cycle tertiary programmes open the doors of bachelor’s level education. Some higher vocational programmes are rather disconnected from the university sector in particular, so that completing them does not facilitate entry into bachelor’s programmes.

Many countries have at least some VET programmes that do not yield direct access to tertiary education. In countries where a large share of students pursue such programmes (e.g. France, Hungary, Netherlands, Slovenia), there are always bridges that connect VET with tertiary education. Bridges that connect vocational programmes with tertiary education may take different forms (some are described in detail in Box 4.2):

  • Dedicated bridging programmes: These mostly take one or two years to complete. Examples of ISCED level 3 bridging programmes include follow-up courses yielding the maturita in the Czech Republic, programmes preparing for the maturity examination in Hungary, or the vocational baccalaureate in Switzerland. In some countries such bridging programmes are offered at postsecondary non-tertiary level – such as programmes yielding the university entrance qualification in Germany, and follow-up courses yielding the maturita in the Slovak Republic.

  • Options within upper secondary vocational programmes: Vocational students may choose to pursue additional general education and obtain eligibility to tertiary education (or a wider range of tertiary programmes) – such options exist in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland (the above-mentioned vocational baccalaureate).

  • Stand-alone examinations: VET graduates may prepare for the examination on their own or through a preparatory course – examples include the vocational matura in Austria and the vocational baccalaureate in Switzerland.

Some countries offer various bridging options at the same time – for example in Germany the university entrance qualification may be obtained in parallel to the apprenticeship programme or upon completion of it, taken as a stand-alone examination.

One different approach to organising pathways is to keep upper secondary education general and delay occupational preparation mostly to the postsecondary level, as in Canada and the United States. Vocational courses exist in upper secondary education but they are offered typically as an optional subject and take up limited space in the curriculum. In the absence of vocational tracks, there are no constraints in progression to higher levels (although accessing some fields will require the completion of particular subjects and levels at high school level, such as higher maths for engineering). The pathway from high school to higher levels of education is often similar to progression from general education to tertiary education in countries with vocational tracks. In schools that offer programmes with stronger vocational content (e.g. CTE concentrators in the United States), there are sometimes linkages with postsecondary education, linking initial technical preparation in high school to a postsecondary qualification in the same field (Box 4.3).

The following guiding principles can underpin strong pathways between upper secondary VET and higher levels of education:

  • Nobody should be locked out of higher-level learning opportunities because of a choice they made (or a route they were directed to) at some point in their education. From any vocational programme there should be a potential progression pathway that leads to higher levels.

  • Creating effective pathways is important for the attractiveness of vocational programmes. Young students with an interest in a vocational field will include some who are not attracted to academic forms of learning, as well as some who would like to keep their options open or who have their eyes set on tertiary education. Without realistic opportunities to access higher levels of education after VET, those in the latter groups will opt for general education.

  • Restrictions on eligibility to higher levels of education are more likely to damage the attractiveness of VET when lower secondary students are free to choose the orientation of their upper secondary programme (e.g. not constrained by school grades or early tracking) and where the educational offer open to VET graduates is limited (e.g. a small sector of higher vocational programmes poorly connected to university programmes).

  • Allowing direct access from vocational programmes to higher levels does not necessarily remove all hurdles – sometimes progression is rare and subsequent completion rates are low (see below). Similarly, restrictions on progression opportunities may be combined with a rich offer of tertiary programmes open to VET graduates and strong bridges that yield eligibility to a wide range of tertiary programmes, creating an effective system for career progression for VET graduates.

It is important to complement the picture of available pathways with data on the take-up of those pathways. In some countries, there is a well-trodden path from VET to postsecondary or tertiary education. In others the route is long and filled with obstacles, so few VET graduates end up taking them successfully. Whether or not VET graduates continue to post-secondary education will also to some extent reflect labour market demand for such higher-level qualifications.

Comparative data on progression from VET to higher levels are patchy, but reveal much variation across countries in the share of VET students among tertiary students. In some countries progression to short-cycle tertiary education and bachelor’s level programmes is common (Figure 4.4): in Austria and Slovenia for example, VET graduates represent the majority of short-cycle tertiary students (OECD, 2022[29]) and they account for around half of bachelor’s level students. In Switzerland the short-cycle tertiary sector is small (less than 5% of new entrants to tertiary education) but bachelor’s level programmes commonly serve VET graduates: professional examinations (ISCED levels 6 and 7) and PET colleges (ISCED level 6) require a vocational upper secondary qualification for entry (although exemptions are possible). Even in universities and universities of applied sciences (which require VET graduates to pursue a bridging programme before entering) VET graduates represent nearly a third of new entrants.

Achieving high completion rates in tertiary education in a widespread challenge, especially for students with a vocational upper secondary background. In most countries with available data, completion rates are lower among vocational upper secondary graduates than among those holding a general upper secondary qualification (see Figure 4.5, noting that only full-time students are covered and those having completed a bridging programme may appear as general upper secondary graduates). At the same time, completion rates are high among VET graduates in some countries (e.g. Israel, Switzerland), and in Austria and Sweden they are higher than completion rates among general upper secondary graduates.

As the world of work and the education and training landscape are changing, career guidance has become increasingly important for prospective and current VET learners. In this chapter, career guidance refers to services intended to assist individuals in making well-informed educational, training and occupational choices, as well as in managing their careers (OECD, 2004[38]; Musset and Mytna Kurekova, 2018[39]). Career guidance consists of a wide range of activities, such as i) career education activities, in which individuals learn about the world of work and develop career management skills; ii) career information activities, delivering information about courses and occupations, learning and career opportunities, progression routes and choices, as well as information on where to find help and advice, and how to access it; iii) individual career counselling activities, providing specific advice on career decisions; and iv) activities of direct contact with the world of work, to raise and broaden career aspirations (Musset and Mytna Kurekova, 2018[39]). Career guidance has several functions. Firstly, it informs young students and working adults about education, training and employment opportunities, including those in vocational fields. Secondly, career guidance helps individuals to reflect on their strengths and interests. For example, self-assessment tools help individuals explore their interests, current skills and potential for studying different subjects or pursuing different occupations.

Evidence shows that students' career choices are misaligned with labour market trends and needs in many countries, highlighting the need for more and better guidance. For instance, in countries like Canada and the United States, the occupations preferred by 15-year-old students are very different from the fastest-growing occupations in these economies (Mann et al., 2020[40]). Moreover, students only consider a relatively narrow set of job choices: across OECD countries, 36% of students who had a clear idea of what career they expected to have at the age of 30 expect to work in one of the ten most frequently cited occupations by young people in their country/economy. This is the case for 34% of socio-economically disadvantaged and 39% of socio-economically advantaged students (Figure 4.6), and is also more likely for girls than for boys (Mann et al., 2020[40]).3 Many teenagers ignore or are unaware of emerging jobs. The same data also reveal a narrowing of expectations as these shares increased by eight percentage points for boys and four percentage points for girls since the 2000 PISA survey.

To support students in making informed education and career decisions, it is paramount that countries have robust, efficient and effective career guidance services. Such services should give students a good understanding of the education and training options available, as some options, particularly those in VET, are often poorly understood by students (Musset and Mytna Kurekova, 2018[39]). In an EU survey, only 58% of respondents reported receiving information about VET options when deciding on their education at the upper secondary level (Figure 4.7). Moreover, there is a marked difference between general education and VET orientation: among those whose upper secondary education was primarily vocational, 72% say they receive VET information when deciding; this is true only for 48% of those whose upper secondary education was primarily general. Career guidance should also help students better understand different careers and broaden their aspirations – particularly those occupations linked to VET studies (Musset and Mytna Kurekova, 2018[39]). A lack of understanding about their career options can affect young students' decisions to join VET and their transitions from VET to the world of work or into further learning. Therefore, career guidance is crucial to support VET students' transition from education to work and between secondary and post-secondary studies. Effective career guidance encourages young students to reflect on who they are and want to become and think critically about the relationships between their educational choices and future economic life (Mann et al., 2020[40]). Parents and teachers are fundamental in young people's decisions. Employers can also play an important role in widening the options considered by young people and providing insights into the world of work, especially in VET programmes (Mann, Rehill and Kashfpakdel, 2018[41]).

Career guidance is essential not only for young students but also for adults. New jobs are being created with the green and digital transition, while others are becoming obsolete, and many existing jobs are undergoing changes. This implies that some adults may need upskilling and reskilling and require support and guidance to develop the right skills and increase their employability. Evidence suggests that career guidance on VET can be especially relevant for supporting adults' upskilling and reskilling decisions in a dynamic labour market (CEDEFOP-OECD, 2021[43]). As highlighted in Chapter 3, many adults do not participate in training nor are interested in doing so. Effective career guidance can contribute to engaging adults in training and overcoming barriers. Career guidance reduces information asymmetries that adults may face, raises awareness of training options -including VET programmes-, enables the validation of skills, and supports job search (OECD, 2021[44]). Adults would benefit from receiving clear and updated information on job and training opportunities, as well as options for assessing the abilities and skills gained through work and previous learning experiences (see Chapter 3). Public employment services and counselling agencies are fundamental in providing career guidance for adults (OECD, 2021[44]) to support them in making informed decisions about their careers and professional development.

Although career guidance for students usually takes place in schools, career guidance services can be provided in different settings and through different channels (OECD, 2004[38]). Career guidance is provided to young students by both academic and vocational secondary education institutions, private career guidance providers, and post-secondary/tertiary education institutions looking to welcome new students. For instance, Chile’s biggest provider of tertiary vocational education (Instituto Nacional de Capacitación Profesional, INACAP) offers free in-person advice to students interested in higher-level vocational studies. This service includes tests of interests and skills, and a web tool mapping their test results to INACAP's offer of VET programmes (INACAP, 2021[45]).

In addition to face-to-face guidance activities, interactive online tools provide general information and tailored advice for students based on their skills and interests. Many countries have developed online portals with comprehensive information to make career decisions – often targeting learners of all ages – as a complement to face-to-face activities. Online portals sometimes include online chat systems or advice from specialists via phone or videoconference. For instance, in Scotland (United Kingdom), the portal 'My World of Work' is a platform containing information to support young students and adults in their career choice (Box 4.4). Users can browse vocational and academic courses and their associated occupational profiles in several industries. The website complements face-to-face guidance delivered in schools and dedicated guidance centres in Scotland.

Employers can be one of the best sources of advice and guidance for young people thinking about their future careers, especially for those considering enrolling in VET and for current VET students wanting to enter the labour market. Companies have deep knowledge about specific fields and industries, and can therefore provide valuable information to those interested in VET. By engaging with businesses, schools can give their students real-world work experiences, bring more relevance to their learning, and open their eyes to different career pathways. Employer engagement can facilitate direct contact with those working in different careers and expose young students directly to workplaces (Musset and Mytna Kurekova, 2018[39]). These strategies give young people a clearer idea about what jobs involve and supply trusted information about labour market demand, allowing students to become better prepared to make education and career decisions (Rehill, Kashefpakdel and Mann, 2017[48]). In the United Kingdom, for instance, local business leaders participate in career talks with students. They share insights, career guidance, lessons and tips, and information about their company and its sector to motivate and inspire young students to make informed decisions about their future. Companies can also offer short training programmes (traineeships) to young students for career mentoring and skills development (Education and Skills Funding Agency, 2017[49]). Extensive evidence demonstrates solid links between school-employer engagement and students’ learning and employment outcomes. From school-organised career talks with outside speakers to students’ enrolment in internships and other work-based learning opportunities, employers’ participation in career guidance activities has benefits for students’ motivation and attitude toward learning (Mann and Dawkins, 2014[50]), future economic prospects (Kashefpakdel and Percy, 2016[51]) and labour market placement (Mann, Rehill and Kashfpakdel, 2018[41]).

Access to career guidance services varies substantially across countries (OECD, 2019[27]). According to PISA data, access to career guidance for 15-year-old students in schools is almost universal in countries like Ireland, Portugal and Sweden, whereas less than 10% of students have access in countries like Belgium, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Japan (Figure 4.8). Access to career guidance services in schools is usually determined by countries’ national policies and the school resources available. Also, within countries, there are substantial differences between schools and students in terms of access to career guidance (see next subsection for further details).

Career guidance take-up depends on the type of activities offered, the information provided and the bodies in charge of delivering them (e.g. schools, employers). These elements affect the quality of the career guidance services and their perceived usefulness. According to a WorldSkills-OECD survey among young people (aged 18 to 24) at the end of general education and VET programmes in 18 countries, 89% of students had received some form of career guidance, of which 73% found it useful (Figure 4.9). Only 49% benefited from career counselling services provided by schools, although these were most likely to be deemed useful (77%). This is particularly the case for schools that mediate career guidance activities with employers or offer career guidance counselling, including career education on work-related activities (e.g. how to get a job, how to write a CV), which students find significantly useful (Worldskills and OECD, 2019[52]).

Young students are not necessarily aware of the value of the information provided by career guidance services. Students usually trust other sources of information to make these decisions, including advice and information provided by their parents. However, parents usually lack information about the full range of options available. They can be unaware of the diversity of jobs available in the different sectors of the economy, which can affect students’ decisions (Musset and Mytna Kurekova, 2018[39]). This is especially the case for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, where families usually have less knowledge about the choices of tertiary programmes available to them. Moreover, parents usually favour general programmes over VET programmes, so this could have significant implications, especially for those students that may be potentially interested in VET-related occupations that are less well known (Musset and Mytna Kurekova, 2018[39]).

As highlighted in Figure 4.8, not all students have access to career guidance in schools. In those countries where career guidance is not readily available at schools, students may be unaware of the existing sources of information they can use to inform their career decisions. If they are not easily understandable or immediately available, students may not take the time to examine these resources. There are initiatives targeted at young students in several countries to increase their awareness of the importance of making well-informed career decisions. These initiatives include national or regional information campaigns, job fairs, and activities designed to give students an idea about the world of work. Campaigns such as the National Careers Week in the United Kingdom use media resources (including social media) to inform young students about career guidance activities and the importance of career-related decisions.

Many occupations targeted by VET and learning routes, such as apprenticeships, are stereotyped or poorly understood, contributing to skills shortages and the risk of school dropouts (CEDEFOP, 2021[53]). Despite the generally strong labour market outcomes of VET students, only a limited share of people would recommend it as a post-secondary education option (Figure 4.10). One possible reason is the misconception that VET only leads to the labour market and is a dead-end in education progression (see previous subsection for more details about progression pathways). According to CEDEFOP’s opinion survey on VET, only 16% of people in the European Union (EU) fully agree with the idea that VET allows continuing into higher education programmes. In addition, the survey also reveals that 70% of interviewees believe that VET is simply about manual work, despite the diversity of jobs which VET now leads to. Evidence suggests that the increases in the number of different career pathways VET can lead to have not been accompanied by improvements in the provision of career support to facilitate the transition to these pathways (Watts, 2010[54]), including those leading towards higher education (OECD, 2012[55]). More and better career guidance is needed to make individuals aware of the benefits and pathways.

This poor image of and misconceptions about VET contribute to a high concentration of students interested in only a limited set of career options, which are usually linked to academic degrees (OECD, 2019[27]) and not necessarily to the student’s academic profile and performance, leading to misaligned career expectations (OECD, 2019[27]). Evidence has shown that teenage career aspirations are not necessarily coherent with the projected labour demand (Maan et al., 2013[56]). For instance, there is a higher interest in VET-related jobs in some countries than in the VET pathways needed to prepare for these jobs, suggesting a misalignment between students’ occupational interests and educational aspirations. This suggests a lack of understanding of the role of vocational education (Hargreaves and Osborne, 2017[57]).

Career guidance can mitigate against misconceptions and wrong assumptions about VET by providing young people with fuller insights into the true nature of occupations to broaden and raise aspirations. One way to do so is by providing critical information on VET and its different career pathways, accompanied by direct exposure to these alternatives. For instance, in the Netherlands, the Council of VET schools (MBO Raad) developed a web portal (ditisMBO.nl) with basic but essential information on VET and career options. Additionally, ambassadors of fields of studies promote VET programmes by sharing their experiences, challenges, and achievements for each option. Similarly, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science developed a VET programme choice portal (kiesMBO.nl) that provides detailed information on the different fields and career pathways. The portal also includes a matching game helping students navigate through all the VET options and find the programme that corresponds best with their interests and context (Box 4.5). In the Ile de France region in France, an apprenticeship fair (Forum de l’Alternance) is organised annually, where prospective apprentices can meet with employers and training providers, receive information on apprenticeship training, and participate in workshops to learn more about specific sectors. They also receive guidance on how to secure an apprenticeship (e.g. job interview coaching, CV writing tips).

Information about labour market outcomes and prospects of different VET programmes and pathways is crucial for career guidance. Evidence for the Netherlands suggests that recent VET graduates who made extensive use of labour market information to guide their education choice have better labour market outcomes than graduates for whom labour market information was a less critical factor in their education choice (Fouarge, Künn and Punt, 2017[59]). Career guidance that is based on skills needs information helps students (and adults) make an informed decision on education and training investment (OECD, 2016[60]). Providing information on skills requirements and labour market outcomes can improve students’ beliefs about job opportunities and wages, shifting their education and occupation preferences (De Koning, Dur and Fouarge, 2022[61]). In the Netherlands, for instance, VET students who receive labour market information tend to change their favourite occupation towards an occupation with better labour market prospects. Similarly, they select the field of specialisation related to occupations with better labour market prospects and choose post-secondary education programmes with higher expected earnings (Hofer, Zhivkovikj and Smyth, 2020[62]).

Despite efforts to provide accurate information to young individuals that allow them to make informed career decisions, detailed information on VET outcomes is not readily available or is not easy to access in many countries. For instance, disaggregated labour market outcomes data, such as employment rates or annual income for graduates from different programmes or performing a specific occupation, is not always available. When it is available, it is not always presented in an attractive and accessible way. Moreover, forecasts of future demand for occupations targeted by VET are often lacking. Some countries have made special efforts to gather detailed information on labour market outcomes from different VET programmes. Information such as employability and salaries is gathered through labour force surveys or similar data sources and made available in an accessible format. Likewise, several countries provide detailed information about occupations and, in some cases, link it to programmes of study leading to those occupations. For instance, the Danish national guidance portal offers many resources to make informed decisions, including detailed job and career information directly linked to each VET programme (Box 4.6).

Making informed education choices also means considering the costs involved for the different options. Information about financing options for VET students is not always available or easy to understand (Davis et al., 2019[64]). In most cases, information about tuition fees for VET programmes is readily available, but the different support measures for covering such costs are not detailed or are too complex (Evans and Boatman, 2019[65]). Eligibility for public funding and the amounts covered are usually based on individuals’ characteristics and subject to specific eligibility requirements. In addition to public support, some educational institutions offer special payment arrangements and scholarships to cover students’ tuition fees and living expenses, adding to the complexity for prospective students.

A lack of systematised information on financing options makes the decision process for students (and their parents) substantially complex. This can discourage young students who are financially risk-averse or unaware of the economic benefits of pursuing any educational programme, including VET. Based on PISA 2018 data, on average, only 3 out of 10 students know how to find information about student financing (Figure 4.11), and this proportion is even lower among students from a disadvantaged background – i.e. those who might arguably need it the most. National financing bodies and education and training providers are crucial in making this information transparent and readily available. Prospective students should be able to easily compare the cost implications of the various study options they are considering, including a comparison between VET and general or academic studies. A standardisation of the available information, including the application process for funding, can increase the number and diversity of students enrolled in VET.

In several countries, governments have managed to systematise and centralise the information provided by training providers and the government on grants, loans, and other financial support. In England (UK), for instance, the student finance calculator offers information on public funding and repayment schemes based on students’ study interests and sociodemographic characteristics (Box 4.7). In the United States, financial aid professionals provide information on financing options for pursuing further studies. These professionals are part of the Federal Student Aid office (FSA) from the Department of Education and provide information and guidance to prospective students on financial aid and loan options, including support in finding training announcements and linking to other federal or state student aid.

In VET systems with apprenticeship and internship schemes, it is also essential to provide information about salaries and benefits that learners receive during these company placements. Without information on whether or not work placements are paid and minimum and usual salaries for apprentices or interns, prospective learners do not have the full picture to make an informed decision. Most of the information available about the cost and benefits in this matter is oriented towards employers. In Spain, for instance, employers can access guidelines about how to proceed with apprenticeship agreements, pay and conditions, and the financial incentives available. All this information is centralised on the website of the Public Employment Service (Servicio Público de Empleo Estatal, SEPE). However, the information about apprenticeships and internships’ salaries and support measures for learners is spread over different sources and sometimes lacks clarity. Most websites present information mainly on the requirements and the apprenticeship opportunities, as shown in the SEPE portal.

Access to career guidance varies significantly across countries, but also within countries. PISA 2018 data show an important gap in participation in career guidance between advantaged and disadvantaged students in many countries (Figure 4.12.). Across the OECD, students from disadvantaged schools are less likely to participate in career guidance than those in the most advantaged schools. This fact is particularly striking since students from disadvantaged backgrounds exhibit the most significant challenges in making an informed decision about their careers (Thiele et al., 2016[67]; Yates et al., 2010[68]).

Career guidance is fundamental for broadening and potentially raising student aspirations and expectations to boost social mobility. Socio-economic context can play an important role in people’s aspirations and expectations (Musset and Kureková, 2018[69]; Mann, Denis and Percy, 2020[70]). Young people from rural areas, migrants, and those with low socio-economic status are prone to experience low social mobility and short-sighted career aspirations, particularly if they do not benefit from career guidance (Musset and Kureková, 2018[69]). Low aspirations mentality generate an invisible ceiling on youth educational and labour outcomes. Disadvantaged youth are much more likely to settle for work demanding lower skills than the ones accumulated during their lifetime (CEDEFOP, 2016[71]). Moreover, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are most likely to demonstrate misaligned expectations due to limited understanding of the role and tasks involved in each occupation, as well as a lack of knowledge of the skills and abilities required (Mann et al., 2020[40]).

Career guidance can help break the influence of socio-economic background and disrupt intergenerational cycles by motivating young people to engage with more (and with the right) education and training and potentially increasing educational and labour outcomes. Disadvantaged students could benefit from inspirational stories and success cases from people with similar backgrounds who have managed to overcome difficulties and find their career paths. Through exposure to the people who do different jobs and from different sectors, young people have the chance to challenge class-based (and gender-based, see below) stereotyping and broaden their aspirations. In France, for instance, the programme Ropes of Success (Cordées de la Reussité) allows young students from rural areas and disadvantaged locations to connect with students and graduates from different VET and university programmes. The Ropes of Success programme aim to expand students’ career aspirations by sharing insights from mentors' experiences during their studies and their transition to the labour market (Box 4.8).

Gender stereotypes can considerably influence students’ educational aspirations and career choices, with substantial repercussions on the labour market and society more broadly. PISA data show that girls have higher career expectations than boys at the same level of proficiency, but they are often narrowly focused, for example, in medicine and teaching professions (Mann et al., 2020[40]). Girls also often turn away from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions (OECD, 2019[27]). These gender differences are substantial among VET students (Figure 4.13): girls are overrepresented among graduates from VET programmes in health (where girls account for 83% of graduates) and education (78%) fields, while they are strongly underrepresented in engineering and ICT programmes (18%). Gendered choices contribute to gender segmentation in the labour market, with females often being concentrated in fields which have lower completion rates, lower pay and weaker opportunities for progression (Beck, Fuller and Unwin, 2006[73]).

Providing support and career guidance to all students is imperative to break gender stereotypes in school and beyond. Helping students pursue personal and career goals, independently of their gender, is crucial for developing a more inclusive labour market. Schools can counter stereotypes and help students cultivate a broader perspective on career options, including science, through better career options and better career information (CEDEFOP, 2021[53]). However, many studies find that career guidance services of the same quality are not always available to all students (Mann, Denis and Percy, 2020[70]). Girls are less likely to receive career guidance directly connected to the labour market (Mann et al., 2020[40]; Musset and Kureková, 2018[69]), and for example, are less likely than boys to attend work-site visits or job fairs or participate in an internship or job shadowing (Figure 4.14).

Research suggests that gender stereotyping can deter girls and boys from pursuing specific careers and can be countered by improved information (Brussino and McBrien, 2022[75]). Certain occupations appear so inaccessible to those not of the dominant gender that richer approaches based on first-hand experiences are called for, especially among VET programmes. Employer engagement and direct exposure to the world of work are essential to enable young people to see for themselves and explore whether it is achievable to go against gender norms (Musset and Kureková, 2018[69]). In Canada, for example, young women have the opportunity to participate in workshops and job immersion in skilled trades and technologies occupations to experience trades jobs first-hand (Box 4.9).

Providing career guidance at an early stage can also help prevent the emergence of stereotypical perceptions of specific educational and career paths (Howard et al., 2015[77]). For instance, Denmark celebrates girls’ day for students from 5th grade by providing information about occupations where women are underrepresented, promoting STEM professions, and offering multiple interactive activities where companies and organisations actively participate. Similarly, in Germany, secondary students celebrate boy’s days which are aimed at attracting young males into the types of jobs where their gender is underrepresented, such as kindergarten teacher, nurse and florist.

While there is an apparent demand for more and better career guidance (Moote and Archer, 2017[78]), relatively little is known about what works and what does not. There is widespread concern that current career guidance services are relatively poorly sourced in schools, staff are inadequately prepared to deal with labour market issues, and the advice may lack objectivity, which may limit students’ career choices (Watss, 2009[79]). Very often, the implementation of career guidance programmes is not following the needs of the learners, and they usually fall into routine administrative activities, handling cases in a narrow view (Martaningsih, 2018[80]).

The need for more effective and high-quality career guidance and counselling underlines the importance of monitoring and evaluation systems to ensure service quality. Yet, countries face limitations in developing quality assurance mechanisms and guidance provision approaches. Career guidance services lack consistent evaluation and monitoring systems to properly track the quality, weaknesses, obstacles to service implementation, and potential utilisation of the programme and the activities involved, which may hinder career guidance effectiveness (Martaningsih, 2018[80]). To a certain degree, this is due to the lack of general frameworks for designing and computing systematically relevant indicators. The evidence suggests that even when data are used for accountability purposes, short-term user feedback, improving services delivery, improving training programmes for career practitioners, or improving career guidance tools, some governments lack the resources and knowledge to use the information for monitoring and evaluating purposes. Governments also have limited experience implementing these methodologies for this purpose (CEDEFOP, 2022[81]).

Some specific guidance service providers may have adopted their own monitoring systems or data collection routines, whether internal or external; however, methodologies and baseline indicators are very diverse. There is a need for standardised and coordinated monitoring and systematic evaluation of career guidance activities (Barnes et al., 2020[82]). Especially among career guidance providers in situ, there is no agreement on what are relevant results of the interventions, ranging from variations in employment status or qualification attainment, career learning outcomes, wellbeing, career progression or satisfaction levels, or a combination of all (Percy and Dodd, 2020[83]) (McCash, Hooley and Robertson, 2021[84]). Nonetheless, evaluation and monitoring systems can be adequately established, as was done in VET upper secondary schools in Egypt and Germany, where the assessment focuses on a specific set of indicators (e.g. employability, labour market and career opportunities). This may limit the scope of the analysis but allows for better tracking of potential improvements (ILO and GIZ, 2018[85]).

To evidence the performance of career guidance services, accurate observation and measurement through programme evaluation activities are needed. As a first step, a reliable framework must define principles on how career guidance should be delivered to support young people to make informed decisions. In England (UK), for example, the Gatsby Benchmark was developed to define what world-class career provision in education looks like and to provide a framework for organising the career provision at any school or higher education institution (Box 4.10). The Careers and Enterprise Company supports the implementation of the benchmarks with a national network of support, resources and targeted funding. It has conducted research establishing a group of indicators, supported by the University of Derby, which have gathered evidence on the effectiveness of the benchmarks.

Career guidance for adults is usually provided by public employment services, private providers, and education and training institutions (OECD, 2021[44]). In some cases, employers can also provide career guidance to their employees to support their professional development and career decisions. Usually, these services provide information about a broad range of education and training options, including formal education and training (e.g. VET, higher education programmes, second chance programmes) and non-formal learning opportunities.

Career guidance services for adults usually involve one (or more) of the following activities: i) providing information to adults about existing career alternatives in the labour market based on their professional profile and interests; ii) identifying and discussing users’ professional strengths and areas for improvement; iii) providing users with information about education and training alternatives to strengthen their professional profiles and improve their employability; and iv) informing users about labour market trends in different industries so that they can learn about growing occupations and emerging jobs, and their related education and skills requirements.

The delivery of career guidance for adults is still done mainly through face-to-face sessions with career counsellors. However, career guidance services have diversified in the last decades to remote alternatives, including telephone, instant messaging or video conference (OECD, 2021[44]). Moreover, and as previously discussed, face-to-face delivery is usually complemented with online information and interactive tools. These can help adults understand labour market trends and identify relevant education and training alternatives to upskill and reskill (including VET).

Career guidance can also provide information on financial and non-financial incentives to support adults in undertaking those activities (e.g. subsidised VET courses, loans, fee waivers, apprenticeship salaries). Career guidance for adults is often targeted at groups that are most in need of training or face large barriers to training participation (see examples in Box 4.11). In many countries, targeted career guidance services are provided to low-skilled adults, as they generally have low participation rates in adult learning. In Iceland, for example, specialised career and vocational counsellors provide career guidance to low-skilled adults across the country (Box 4.11). Moreover, various countries have been providing dedicated career guidance services to older adults, recognising the need to help them navigate a changing labour market when they want to improve their career prospects or search for a career change. In Switzerland, for instance, the VIAMIA programme is tailored to middle-aged adults looking for information on professional development activities, such as VET studies. The programme is supported by a wealth of online complementary information and tools (Box 4.11).

Nearly all OECD countries have put in place some sort of career guidance for adults. These services are provided by a variety of actors, including public employment services (PES), dedicated public career guidance services, private providers, associations and social partners. According to the OECD Survey of Career Guidance of Adults (SCGA), 43% of adults have spoken with a career guidance advisor over the past five years across the six analysed countries (Chile, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and the United States). Most adults who used career guidance services had multiple interaction with advisors. OECD (2021[44]) shows that the vast majority of adults who do not use career guidance services simply do not feel they need to (57%). Older adults and those with lower levels of education are over-represented in this group. Another 20% of non-users reported not knowing that career guidance services existed. Other less significant barriers include lack of time (for work or personal reasons) (11%), high costs (4%), inability to find a career guidance advisor (3%), poor quality of services (2%), or inconvenient time or place of service delivery (2%).

In general, adults are not actively looking for information about learning opportunities. According to data from the European Adult Education Survey, one in three adults (35%) have searched for information on formal and non-formal education and training (Figure 4.15). Rates spanned from less than 20% in Hungary, Lithuania and Türkiye, to over 50% in Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Slovenia. According to OECD (2021[44]) analysis, there is evidence that countries with more robust career guidance services have a higher share of adults actively searching for information on learning possibilities.

The use of career guidance services also varies within countries, and evidence suggests that the groups most in need of advice – e.g. those who are already struggling in the labour market and/or need training but are not getting it – are the ones who have limited access to career support. Connecting adults who need career guidance the most with available services is challenging but could improve training participation rates and labour market outcomes for disadvantaged groups. Figure 4.16 shows differences in the use of career guidance services between adults with different personal and work characteristics in eleven OECD countries (OECD, 2021[44]). The most significant gaps are found between prime-age adults (25-54) and older adults (over 54) (18 percentage points), followed by high- and lower-educated adults (17 percentage points) and adults living in cities and rural areas (8 percentage points). Employed adults are more likely to engage with career guidance than unemployed ones. By contrast, other potentially disadvantaged groups take up more career guidance than their counterparts. This is the case, for example, for foreign-born adults (2 percentage points difference compared to native-born adults), who may be more proactive in seeking advice and guidance as they have more unstable work conditions (OECD, 2021[44]). Persons working in occupations with a high risk of automation also tend to be more likely to use career guidance services than those in occupations with lower risk (OECD, 2021[44]).

There are several reasons why adults seek career guidance and use multiple means to access career information (e.g. on line). The most common reasons to seek career guidance are related to job-search and job-progression (59%), followed by receiving information on education and training options (25%). In both cases, providing up-to-date information on labour market needs, as well as employment, education, and labour-relevant training opportunities such as VET programmes, play an important role. Instead of seeking advice from career guidance advisors, many adults look independently online for information which in most cases is about education and training programmes (35%).

There is a common perception in some countries that career guidance and VET programmes mainly concern young people in school. Nonetheless, there is substantial demand for career guidance among adults aimed at providing information and support regarding VET options (Watts, 2010[54]). Building a solid career guidance service system is therefore imperative to ensure that all adults, including the most disadvantaged, can access the assistance they need to make well-informed education, training and career choices. This section covers the main challenges and opportunities that career guidance services face to provide adults with information and support regarding their re- and up-skilling decisions. In addition to the challenges described below, many of the challenges and opportunities for strengthening career guidance for young people that are discussed above apply similarly for adults, including issues related to information on funding and the need to break gender stereotypes.

In an era of changing skill needs, due to factors such as the green and digital transition, some workers may need to change sectors and/or occupations. For example, 14% of workers in OECD countries are in jobs that are likely to become fully automated in the coming years, and these workers need to reskill to move into less automatable jobs (Nedelkoska and Quintini, 2018[94]). Likewise, the green transition is likely to displace workers from polluting sectors, who require opportunities for reskilling to transfer into greener jobs. However, as discussed in Chapter 3, many workers do not participate in training and have limited motivation to do so. In fact, certain workers with a high probability of needing reskilling in the not-so-distant future, such as those in jobs at high risk of automation, have relatively low training participation rates.

Lack of preparedness and limited access to guidance and information affects adults’ attitude toward learning (Topală, 2014[95]), hindering their possibility of reassessing career paths and considering different career options. Some adults see changing careers as a risk, especially those who have been in the same sector for many years and low-skilled workers. These adults may have a limited understanding of potential retraining pathways and require additional support to reflect on career moves and retraining efforts that better align with labour market needs (OECD, 2021[26]). Similarly, a career change for most adults may imply a return to school, which requires time and resources (Donohue, 2007[96]). As discussed in Chapter 3, VET could be an attractive pathway for adults who want or need to reskill, as it provides opportunities closely linked to the labour market. Finding the proper training can be troublesome without guidance and support, especially for adults struggling mentally to reassemble their career blueprint.

Counsellors and advisors have an essential role in helping to overcome these limitations. On the one hand, they can provide insights about the relevance of finding new career paths, and on the other, access to clear information about the training options that can facilitate such transitions. In Germany, career guidance and support are provided to ‘Quereinsteiger’ (i.e. career changers), helping them get the right skills and fashioning their CVs to become more competitive in the labour market. The Federal Government of Germany has developed a website providing detailed information on reskilling pathways and job opportunities for people interested in changing career paths. In Switzerland, ‘Orientation.ch’ is an online portal providing career guidance and support to adults who want to change jobs and professions. The portal provides a guideline for adults to work on a multi-step career path plan which involves reflecting on one’s interests and skills, getting informed about job opportunities, defining career expectations and exploring learning opportunities (Box 4.12).

As described above, many adults report not seeing a need for career guidance support or not being aware of existing services. As career guidance can support all adults in making better educational and career decisions, awareness of the need and importance should be raised.

Raising awareness about career guidance requires actions on many fronts. Some strategies are more effective than others, and their effectiveness often depends on the target population and their interests. Among the countries participating in the OECD Survey of Career Guidance for Adults, most of the career guidance beneficiaries received information about the service through Public Employment Services (PES) (20%) (Figure 4.17). Another 18% received information from a friend or family member, and another 17% from their employer. This reveals the heterogeneity among career guidance users, with the unemployed being more likely to obtain information via PES and workers more likely to be informed by employers. This highlights that different mechanisms are needed to inform and increase awareness of guidance services.

In recognition of the lack of awareness about the importance of career guidance for adults, several countries have set up public career guidance centres with the purpose of providing guidance to all adults, regardless of employment status, age or income (OECD, 2021[44]) (see centres in Scotland in Box 4.4). These centres are funded by the state and usually have specialised staff with knowledge about the wide range of possibilities for professional development, including VET studies for adults. In some cases, such centres are focused on working with older adults or other groups with particular training needs (Box 4.11). Recently, and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, many of their services moved online or now include online tools as part of their offer.

Additional tools and strategies can be implemented to raise awareness of such centres and of career guidance more broadly. Having ready-to-use information about the providers of career guidance can help adults navigate the landscape and find the providers that are most relevant for them. For instance, in France, through the website "Mon conseil en évolution professionnelle, Mon CEP", adults access tailored information about the importance of career guidance and the different providers offering career guidance services (Box 4.13). In Greece, the National Organisation for the Certification of Qualifications and Vocational Guidance (EOPPEP) requests private career guidance providers to register in an effort to inform the public about available programmes and promote quality among private providers (Box 4.13). In addition, EOPPEP developed an online Lifelong Career Development Portal with various career development tools and services.

As discussed in Chapter 3, adults with low levels of qualifications and/or cognitive skills have limited opportunities to develop their skills further through education and training (OECD, 2019[88]). Moreover, low-skilled adults often face limited aspirations and low career expectations, making them, in most cases, perceive low-skilled work as a reflection of their natural place and identity. The lack of guidance, information and support can perpetuate this vicious cycle hindering adults’ participation in further education and discarding better job opportunities (Sissons, 2020[101]), which impedes social integration (Brand-Gruwel, Moekotte and Ritzen, 2017[102]). VET programmes can support low-skilled adults in developing labour-market relevant skills while at the same time closing basic skills gaps (see Chapter 3). Tailoring basic skills programmes to low-skilled workers’ work contexts and embedding them into vocational training can make them more relevant, attractive, and ultimately effective for low-skilled workers (OECD, 2020[103]). Contextualising basic skills content can have several benefits in terms of engaging and retaining low-skilled adult learners, improving their attitudes towards learning and self-confidence, and resulting in the skills used and maintained in the workplace.

Providing career guidance, including information on VET options, to low-skilled adults is imperative to transform their view of themselves as learners and expand career expectations and potential job opportunities (CEDEFOP, 2016[71]; Wojecki, 2007[104]). However, adults with lower levels of qualifications are less likely to feel a need to speak with a career guidance counsellor (Figure 4.16) than those with high levels of qualifications. Likewise, they are less likely to search for information on learning opportunities (Figure 4.18): In the EU, 45% of adults with a tertiary education qualification search actively for information on learning possibilities, whereas 23% of adults with less than lower secondary education do so. One reason for this is that adults with low skill levels find it more challenging to recognise their learning needs (Windisch, 2015[105]). Tailored guidance and outreach are needed for this group of adults. For instance, in Poland, the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development (PARP) delivers the programme "Every employee is important – raising the competence of low-skilled workers", which provides information and career guidance to workers with low levels of qualifications (Box 4.14). This programme includes a diagnosis of companies’ training needs and offers motivational workshops and soft skills training, together with information about training on specific job-relevant skills. Evidence suggests that this programme positively impacts training engagement, especially among the lowest-skilled workers (Wolińska et al., 2015[106]).

Another group of adults for whom career guidance could be of particular benefit are migrants. Migrants face several challenges in adapting to the circumstances in their new country. They may find it hard to navigate and enter the labour market and/or education and training system. For many, opportunities to recognise their qualifications, skills and experience, as well as opportunities to develop their language skills and vocational competencies, are crucial components that contribute to adapting to the labour market and society more broadly. As highlighted by OECD (2019[107]) analysis, VET could be an effective tool for integrating migrants, provided that the VET system and programmes are flexible and permeable (see Chapter 3).

Migrants’ lower participation rates in adult education are associated with a lack of guidance and counselling on learning opportunities. Across the EU, about a quarter of the foreign-born use such services, against one-third of the native-born (OECD/European Union, 2018[108]). Educational and career guidance becomes essential in supporting the newly arrived on their journey towards social inclusion, especially when such services are seen as part of a connected set of integrated systems. These include skills assessment, accreditation of prior learning, goal clarification, enhancement of employability and advocacy to combat prejudice and discriminatory practices (Sultana, 2022[109]). For example, migrants and refugees in Germany have access to tools for assessing skills and recognising and validating their previous qualifications. It includes a computer-based skill assessment tool for evaluating informal learning or validating credentials when official documents, including assessment tests, are not available (Box 4.15). In the context of labour market integration, career guidance can facilitate access to vocational education and training – including apprenticeships – subsidised job placement and strategies to make the engagement of the newly-arrived attractive to employers. Advice on language learning and job-related training opportunities should be individualised when possible - and delivered by independent, impartial counsellors.

People are generally more sensitive to information when it is customised to their context and needs. For adults, in particular, tailored guidance can be desirable for several reasons. First, they have very diverse backgrounds (e.g. in terms of skills and work experience), which calls for an adult-specific profiling approach. Second, adults often face one or more obstacles preventing them from engaging with learning opportunities (see Chapter 3), and these need to be understood in order to provide tailored advice. Evidence suggests that personalised career guidance is positively associated with enrolment in training as long as it includes current labour market information and, at the same time, considers individuals’ context (OECD, 2021[44]). Evidence from six OECD countries suggests that adults who received a personalised career development roadmap are 25% more likely to report improved employment prospects (OECD, 2021[44]).

A critical component of tailored career guidance is the assessment of skills, which can be particularly relevant for adults. Skills profiling tools provide a more objective measure of a person’s abilities which is crucial to support flexible pathways and redeployment of adults from declining to growing jobs and sectors. Such profiling tools are still uncommon across OECD countries, while interviews are more commonly used (Figure 4.19). Only 31% of adults have participated in a test, while 64% of them have been asked about their skills and experience, and 21% about their qualifications and certificates.

Related to this, the recognition of prior learning (RPL) plays an essential role in career guidance, especially in formal education programmes – like VET programmes. As Chapter 3 describes, RPL can lead to formal certification of skills acquired outside formal training. The process involves demonstrating achievement of competencies, often by preparing a portfolio of relevant work or demonstrating one’s ability to carry out tasks in practice. RPL can shorten retraining pathways by giving adults credit for skills they already have, thus accelerating their transition to new jobs or sectors. Career guidance advisors can help adults to navigate RPL processes.

In many cases, career guidance services for adults are not effectively meeting their goal of positively influencing career and education-related decisions (OECD, 2021[44]). There are several reasons for that, many of which can be traced back to quality challenges. As for career guidance for youth, quality assurance in career guidance is vital – maybe even more so in the space of adult career guidance which is often scattered among a wide variety of providers. Countries have adopted various strategies to make providers’ quality more transparent. As described above, the Greek EOPPEP has a register of private guidance providers, and registered providers can receive preferential support from the Ministry of Labour. In France, the private providers of the Conseil en Evolution Professionnelle (CEP) (Box 4.13) were selected by France Compétences following a call for tender based on criteria related to their understanding of the CEP; proposed methods, partnerships, awareness-raising and accessibility measures; quality of the staff; and piloting measures.

One key aspect of quality is the ability of the counsellors to effectively guide and support users. Nonetheless, those providing career counselling are not always adequately trained for these positions, lacking the knowledge and skills to provide effective guidance (OECD, 2021[44]). In other cases, the information needed by advisors to effectively guide the career decision-making process is not available or well systematised. As career guidance for adults makes intensive use of recent information on labour market trends and outcomes and the wide offer of education and training opportunities, the opacity of information can significantly impact the quality of the career guidance provided.

In most countries, career guidance advisor is not a regulated profession (i.e. no certificate, licence, or registration must be attained to use the occupation title). Nevertheless, many define minimum training and qualification requirements or participation in refresher programmes to operate as counsellors. A growing number of countries offer specialised training and continuing professional development in career guidance to ensure high-quality services. This allows advisors to keep their knowledge about the labour market and education and training landscape up to date. Career advisors must also develop digital skills amid rapid technological developments that have revolutionised career products and services. In Estonia, for example, the Employment Service of Slovenia offers an annual catalogue of internal professional courses and training (in-person or e-learning). A budget is available to refer counsellors to external professional courses, training, conferences, study visits, and seminars. In Japan, refresher training for career consultants in the public employment service is mandatory and ongoing self-development is expected. Under Japan’s new national qualification for career counselling, counsellors must renew their certification once every five years with a minimum of 38 hours of training (Box 4.16) (OECD, 2021[112]).


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← 1. This section draws heavily on Stronati (2023[2]).

← 2. The amount of general education included in training packages attracted some criticism in the past, as it was judged insufficient (Knight and Karmel, 2011[113]). In March 2013 the Foundation Skills Training Package (FSK TP) was released, supporting the integrated delivery of foundation skills and vocational skills and knowledge.

← 3. Among countries reporting career expectations in 2000 and 2018 PISA, on average 53% of girls and 47% of boys expected a career in one of the ten most cited occupations in 2018.

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