Mon Oct 10 2019 Michael McQueen

If you rose through the grades of the schooling system in the last forty years or so, it is almost certain that at some point you were encouraged toward university. With its lures of prestige and its promises of the expansion of the mind, and a cap, gown and certificate waiting at the end, it has kept young people captivated by the hope of their own future.

Inversely, vocational training, apprenticeships and industry work have been negatively affected by people’s prejudices against them. Presenting as paths of education with fewer prospects, less prestige and less purpose, numbers within them have dropped dramatically compared to tertiary education, and society is feeling the burden of this imbalance.

The last five years in Australia have seen the number of people completing apprenticeships halve.[1] In both Australia and the US, there are national shortages in industries like construction and manufacturing.[2] The demand for skilled workers is simply not being met by the numbers of those gaining the necessary qualifications.

There are many factors that may have led to this but one of them must undeniably be the underlying, and often blatant, bias that schools, parents and media often have against work in a trade. Among school students themselves there is a negative stigma around ‘dropping out’ before the final year of secondary school, the term itself implying some kind of failure. Those who complete their higher school leaving certificate are rewarded with graduation ceremonies and formals and parties, while those who leave to go into apprenticeships or vocational training at the age of 15 or 16 seem to slip out of school unnoticed.

The teaching and resources in schools are often geared towards tertiary education. While this is very important, it disregards a large sector of the population who also need preparation for their vocations. Information sessions and resources are primarily centred around universities, but the students who are looking at other options are often expected to seek out their own information and opportunities.

Attending university has become the default position, unless a student has specific other plans. The challenge with this is that many of the highly practical, entrepreneurial and human capabilities the future workforce will need in an age of AI are capabilities taught very effectively, perhaps most effectively, in a vocational context.

Our educational prejudices are not benefitting anyone. Trade industries, and the society and economy they affect, are suffering. But, ironically, universities themselves are also suffering. In fact, thirty-seven percent of students entering tertiary education require remedial courses[3] and half of all employers feel that their potential workers lack the essential traits for workforce success such as creativity, planning and relationship skills.[4]

Young people who have felt pressured into tertiary education by their schools and families have arrived only to be overwhelmed by the style and structure of learning, unhappy with their degrees and confused about their own interests and hopes for their future vocation.

Dropout rates are higher than ever in Australia, with one in three students dropping out without finishing their degree within six years.[5] Within the universities, students are finding the structure and content of the institutions to be increasingly irrelevant. This is unsurprising considering the education model has evolved to a minimal extent over the last century. The aging system of lectures, tutorials, written papers, grades and graduation and the subject matter within this is not serving its students well, as only sixty-seven percent are gaining full-time employment within four months, this rate being the lowest on record.[6]

As the system ages, costs rise and job prospects fall, the real value of a degree is coming into serious question.

Many institutions are moving towards different teaching formats in order to change with the times, replacing the physical university experience with online teaching. In the future this online learning will be supplemented by hands-on industry learning and experience. Sounds a lot like a trade, doesn’t it?

So, it seems there is no group that is content with its experience of the current state of education.

California has been acting on this. By investing millions into campaigning, the state has been attempting to change the stigmas against vocational training and apprenticeships and re-establish them as viable industries with respectable reputations.[7] Marketing the programs to be more attractive to prospective students, and simplifying the process of applying for, completing and using their qualifications have been some of the more practical efforts within this campaign. However, many experts say that much of the responsibility lies with the industries themselves to invest in training the next generation of their workers. This has been taking place, with companies increasingly contributing funds and resources to their associated training institutions.[8][9]

This collaborative effort is exactly the kind of action society needs to see. Schools, industries, training institutions, universities and media need to be collectively encouraging and equipping students for their vocational interests. If schools provide balanced resources, industries invest in their future workforce, training institutions attract more students and universities change with the times, then we have a much better chance of creating a well-equipped, robust and lasting workforce among future generations.

But, perhaps the first and most important thing that needs to change is our prejudice against these other forms of education. Vocational training and apprenticeships are essential and highly viable for the future of our society – without them, we all suffer. Exchanging our biased favour of university for a more balanced and inclusive approach to education is guaranteed to be a profitable, effective and successful trade.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

To see Michael speaking live, click here and for more information on Michael's speaking topics,


[1] Fitzgerald, B 2019, ‘Apprenticeship Numbers Continue to Slide’, ABC, 14 October

[2] Frazee, G 2018, ‘Manufacturers say their workers shortage is getting worse. Here’s why’, PBS, 14 October

[3] Bellanca, J. 2015, Deeper Learning – Beyond 21 st Century Skills, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, pp. 628, 629.

[4] Woods, R. 2018, ‘Automation Is Coming: How To Prepare Our Students In Respectful Ways’, Respectful Ways, 27 March.

[5] 2017, ‘Uni drop-out rates at decade-long high’, SBS, 14 October

[6] 2017, ‘Uni drop-out rates at decade-long high’, SBS, 14 October

[7] Krupnick, M 2017, ‘After years of pushing bachelor’s degrees, U.S. needs more tradespeople’, PBS, 14 October

[8] Frazee, G 2018, ‘Manufacturers say their workers shortage is getting worse. Here’s why’, PBS, 14 October

[9] Krupnick, M 2017, ‘After years of pushing bachelor’s degrees, U.S. needs more tradespeople’, PBS, 14 October