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Vocational education and training (VET) systems have proven to be excellent pathways for students to acquire high-demand skill sets. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa region should certainly consider integrating vocational education and training as key propellers that would help them achieve their employment and productivity targets.

VET systems offer a suite of promising benefits that are too great to ignore. From an economic perspective, VET students deliver high economic value and productivity within various industries. Governments that invested in VET systems have unlocked talent pools that are skilled and employable in strategic industries, enjoying low youth unemployment rates and reducing skills mismatch among graduates.

Furthermore, enterprises benefit from customising training programs that are tailored to their needs and which are incredibly practical, smoothening the transition of graduates to the workplace.

As such, VET systems should be repositioned as important drivers for economic growth and sustained job creation. Essentially, such programs combine learning in vocational schools with practical experience on-site with employers.

Workplace training programmes

Collaborating with the private sector is, thus, a critical success factor as companies often design the VET curriculum and course content together with local or state governmental education agencies, in addition to formulating qualifications and assessments for the industry and providing workplace training programmes that span between two to four years.

This hybrid working model has ensured that VET students graduate with highly relevant skill sets and knowledge, in addition to practical experiences that facilitate the transition to full-time employment.

Successful VET programs rely highly on the input of employers, who can identify priority skills that need to be honed among students during their apprenticeships. VET curricula should consider a combination of key areas, including technical or professional skills relevant to the industry and personal skills relevant to employability, such as problem solving, conflict management, analytical skills, communication, team work, and creativity.

VET teachers and trainers responsible for the apprentices’ workplace training should possess sufficient and relevant professional experiences and qualifications. A rigorous assessment process should also be put in place for assessors and employers to be able to evaluate students’ achievements and demonstration of their mastery of the skill sets needed before their graduation.

It is important to incentivise students to pursue VET pathways. A priority for schools in this context will be to allocate resources towards establishing career counselling services to impart enough advice and information about the career pathways for VET students.

Education agencies should also publish a standardised contract template to be used between employers and students pursuing apprenticeships that will ensure they work in a conducive working environment. This contract should detail out expected working hours, code of conduct, health insurance coverage, occupational safety and health, and leaves.

Increasing talent pools

Providing remuneration for VET students will help them gain financial independence and support their learning journeys. Governments could also provide grants, especially to increase talent pools in strategic sectors and occupations, covering costs such as tuition, housing, books, and transportation. Moreover, defining a monthly salary range for VET students to be dispensed by employers will be an attractive selling point.

In tandem, incentives should also be put in place to support enterprises who are playing an active role in designing and deploying effective apprenticeship programs, such as subsidies, grants, and recognition. Sharing the costs of delivering apprenticeship programs between enterprises and state and local governments is an effective model to engage the private sector.

Another solution is the establishment of collective training offices — currently applied in Norway, Australia, and Germany — to act as intermediaries on behalf of small and medium enterprises and VET schools, enjoying economies of scale to offer an extensive range of training courses to apprentices, whilst delivering on government targets.

Appointing inspiring career mentors and coaches at workplaces is a fantastic way to tailor students’ professional development plans according to their unique needs. Governments could potentially achieve better alignment between employers and VET students by launching a central online platform that acts as a job bank linked to apprenticeship opportunities, according to various industries, occupations, and geographical locations.

More by Sara Al Mulla

We can glean a range of interesting and successful case studies from countries with high graduate intake in VET systems, who also enjoy low youth unemployment rates and high economic success.

Switzerland offers a fantastic example in this regard, with the VET system attracting two-thirds of high school graduates into its programmes. Each year, 26,700 students graduate from VET schools across 230 professions, contributing to a remarkably low youth unemployment rate of 2.5 per cent.

A range of fascinating occupations are on offer for students to pursue as careers, including culinary arts, social care, tourism, logistics, media, artisanship, and health care.

Students divide their times between VET schools, company-sponsored training courses, and workplace apprenticeships. As such, their learning journeys are often personalised to suit the specific job and department requirements.

At the same time, they receive sufficient guidance to pursue their interests and supplemental study options. Students also receive a monthly salary that is considered lucrative for such young students, ranging between $600-$1200 per month.

By reimagine the VET system in the MENA region, governments can unlock a skilled and productive talent pool that will bolster its economic agenda.

Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and literature