Have you ever been caught out by a curve ball in vocational training?

I am a huge advocate of vocational training and further education; college gave me a second chance many years ago and certainly helped me, get to where I am now. However, there is a fly in the ointment in what is, by nature, a wonderful thing. Some of our education and training systems currently in place don’t match up easily which, can cause unnecessary barriers or confusion to progression.

I noticed this most recently when supporting some clients with regards entry routes into engineering at a technician level. We talked about how the full time level 3 BTEC in engineering can be used as the foundation knowledge for some of the apprenticeship schemes out there, such as the accelerated engineering technician pathways within the Royal Navy[i]. We also noted how the BTEC doesn’t generally on its own fully qualify an individual as a mechanical & electrical engineer. In many sectors of heavy industry, further training is often required; the BTEC provides the foundation knowledge for this.

In contrast, a student can take at college as a full time option, the light vehicle maintenance and repair course at levels 2 and 3 to become an auto technician[1]. When I spoke to the IMI (who oversee this part of the automotive industry) they said:

“As the industry is currently unlicensed there are no minimum qualifications required to start in the industry, so a full time student who has completed a Level 3 could move straight into the industry.  However an employer would typically look for a minimum of a Level 2 or above and usually prefer a new starter to undertake an apprenticeship rather than a full time qualification so they have real world practical experience in the workplace.”

Two similar engineering related careers but two very subtle but different possibilities with regards the college courses and what they may mean for progression. However, the importance of work based training after the college study is noted within both.

It’s not just limited to these occupations; here are some other cases in point. I asked questions of a local trainer for the electrical industry how the electrical courses at college are viewed by industry. I was told that if a student wished to become an electrician and studied their C&G level 2 and 3 courses at college full time, they wouldn’t be seen by the industry as ‘fully qualified’ or work ready if they hadn’t completed the additional work based study (NVQ Level 3) with an employer.

If after their college study they couldn’t find an employer to take them through this, they would be stuck unless they transferred their skills to another industry or found something similar to do, such as working with domestic installation via a further domestic installer course (although this wouldn’t qualify them as an electrician). If prospective students aren’t aware of these implications when making their college choices they may be disappointed.

In comparison, if they studied a level 2 in carpentry as a full time course at a college and went to enter the work force they would be seen by some parts of the industry as an ‘improver’ (as they would lack work based experience). However, they would be reliant on an employer for further training within an NVQ or Apprenticeship pathway. Without this they would be unable to become fully qualified and crucially, unable to access building sites which require the CSCS[ii] card.

A representative from the CITB was able to clarify this further for me; they explained how a “full time FE carpentry course is normally the technical certificate pathway for an apprenticeship. It does not qualify them as a carpenter, they would need to complete an NVQ or they could progress on to an apprenticeship and then APL their technical certificate. This means that they would only need to do assessment in the workplace via an NVQ.” They went on to explain how the main goal for many is the “CSCS card which is based on their achievement of the appropriate NVQ.”

As they elaborated, a clearer picture appeared “NVQ is king for all trades as it gives access to the CSCS card. They could technically get a job with a college course but if they work onsite they could only apply for a labourer’s card”

However “a trainee with a company that does not work onsite could gain experience then apply if needed to the NVQ.” In construction their view was that you are “not considered qualified without an NVQ for the applicable trade.”

Clients may only be aware of these variations, if they had been supported by a vocationally focused careers adviser, informed of this on application or at a college open day.

This snapshot of just one small area of the vocational sector highlights the complexity of choice which exists within vocational education at this time. How are students to make sense of this whilst also deciding which pathway is best suited for them? If in the current lottery of careers guidance support they don’t have sufficient access to a qualified careers adviser, they may find themselves unintentionally making an ill-informed choice which may leave them vulnerable to the risks of the labour market; potentially being caught out by an unexpected curve ball.

So, what’s the solution? Alongside the reforms to apprenticeships moving from frameworks to new industry led standards[2] which, focuses on the needs of individual employers there are the much vaunted T-Levels[3] on the horizon which aim to bring parity. However, on speaking to local colleges and others in the sector, details remain slim on what they may finally look like in practice. My one hope is that students who choose T-Levels (or any other foundation study, whether A-Levels, IB, or BTEC) are not potentially hampered in their progression in the ways we have highlighted above; with clear pathways being available and made clear.

In addition to this, it highlights the importance of access to professional fully qualified careers advisers providing independent careers guidance, to help students make sense of these different pathways where there isn’t parity nor clarity in the different idiosyncrasies of each occupation’s respective routes.

[1] https://www.cityandguilds.com/qualifications-and-apprenticeships/transport-maintenance/automotive/4290-vehicle-maintenance-and-repair-vrqs#tab=information

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/removal-of-apprenticeship-frameworks

[3] https://feweek.co.uk/2018/05/27/t-level-full-roll-out-delayed-until-2023-dfe-confirms/

[i] https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/engineers/apprenticeships

[ii] https://www.cscs.uk.com/applying-for-cards/

About the Author

Chris Targett is an Area Manager for Information, Advice & Guidance at CXK Limited in Kent (who provide a number of free resources at: www.cxk.org/resources) as well as a member of the Careers Writers Association and active careers adviser in a number of schools in the South East of England.