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Vocational education is making a comeback

The future is bright as traditional academic institutions and vocational schools are reinventing how students learn

vocational-educationWhen you think about vocational education, you might conjure up a picture of a mechanic or a carpenter. Historically, vocational education, rooted in learning a particular skill set, was positioned in direct contrast with traditional higher-education learning, based primarily on academic theory.

Vocational education often was deemed a second-tier educational choice for those who could not go to college. Today, however, vocational education is making a comeback.

In today’s information economy, demand for specialized, technical skills has become a necessity. With a blurring of lines between skills-based and theory-based education, it’s worth exploring the impact of vocational training on the future of education.

The number of niche providers of vocational training is on the rise, particularly in areas where specialized skills are required for job advancement. Schools have redesigned programs to be shorter-term and focused exclusively on skill-building. For example, Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy offers marketing bootcamps for students, and General Assembly offers product management and web development immersion courses.

We have also seen this demand for specialized skills in the computer coding market. Coding has been hailed as the untapped opportunity in the U.S. job market, with computer programming jobs growing at two times the national average of other job growth. However, less than 2 percent college graduates leave with computer science degrees. In response, vocational schools like the New York Code and Design Academy have been popping up across the country to teach students the computer skills they need to excel in as little as two months.

(Next page: Three ways to adopt vocational education into your curriculum)

Recently, we saw vocational education become part of the for-profit education strategy when Kaplan Inc. acquired Dev Bootcamp, a coding school for aspiring software developers. It will be important to track the success of this endeavor, as it could be predictive of what type of model is likely to reap the most success.

What else can we expect to see as vocational education continues its comeback? I think that theory-based and skills-based learning will continue to blend as existing schools weave practical training into academic curriculum and as independent schools (like coding academies) continue to multiply. This merging of skills will offer students distinct advantages in the job market.

I also think we can expect educators to make certain adaptations to incorporate vocational education into their overall educational plans. Here are three steps you can take:

Consider corporate alliances. Corporations want to hire graduates who have the skills and knowledge base needed to excel in their organizations. If corporations can identify schools with which they can forge strategic partnerships (such as providing internships to students while they are still securing their degrees, or offering compensation through existing scholarships or teaching assistant programs), they’re increasing their odds of hiring a good fit for their company.

In addition, these alliances can help schools create specific programs around the skills and know-how that corporations need. For example, when it comes to coding, corporations short on web developers might consider partnering with a school to design courses that bridge these skills gaps. Additionally, universities might think about aligning themselves with a coding school to leverage the specialized training the school offers and the relationships it holds in the community.

Enhance the traditional degree. We will likely see more traditional academic institutions decide to bundle existing degrees with heavily skills-based programs to diversify their offerings to students. Layering this type of vocational learning on top of traditional degrees has been shown to give students a competitive edge in the job market. For example, a student might consider combining a B.A. in Marketing with a digital marketing bootcamp to gain exposure to specialized skills, such as search engine optimization and social media marketing.

Leverage trends. Lately, we have seen students focus more on getting the right “skills” than just the right “degree,” further reinforcing the role vocational training can play in the education market. With this in mind, schools should pay attention to localized skills gaps (such as a high index of marketing jobs, accounting jobs, or technical writing jobs) and create customized programs or “bootcamps” to leverage these trends. These programs can be stand-alone, bundled with a traditional degree, or as part of a corporate alliance.

For education stakeholders, the future is bright as traditional academic institutions and vocational schools are reinventing how students learn the necessary skills to compete in the marketplace. It’s exciting to watch the comeback of vocational education and how it is cementing its role in K-12 and higher education.

Dan Sommer is president of global education for Zeta Interactive.

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