This argument emerged as a major focus in the first day of the World Innovation Summit for Education (Wise) held in Doha, Qatar this week. The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development launched the summit in 2009.
This year's gathering, titled "Collaborating for Change", has drawn more than 1 000 delegates from 100 countries, including educationists, politicians, NGO leaders and employers.
International experts at the summit on Tuesday stressed that for vocational education to meet skills shortages across the globe, governments need to play their role by introducing policy reforms that will attract youth to these educational institutions.
But Valerie Hannon, co-author of the book Learning a Living, which was launched at the summit, said that in many countries vocational training is still seen "as an option for losers".
She told a plenary session on Tuesday that an "option for losers is what [such training] must not remain" because this form of education equips youth for employment and creates jobs.
Finland is one country that has turned the corner on the public's attitude towards vocational education, Hannon said. "The vocational route [in Finland] is not seen as an option for losers. There's flexibility and courses lead to accreditation recognised by employers."
A global dilemma
This is a message that reverberates for South Africa, where vocational institutions – the further education and training (FET) colleges – are finding it difficult to attract large numbers of students, who still see university study as their first prize and vocational options as second-choice at best.
The Wise summit made it clear South Africa is not alone in this problem of perception. Yet one result is that more than 75-million young people across the globe are without jobs, Christine Evans-Klock, director of the International Labour Organisation's department for skills and employability, told a plenary session titled "Education and the Workforce: Matching Skills and Needs".
The "terrible unemployment crisis" was partly because employers can't find local people with the right technical skills, said Evans-Klock.
Youth unemployment and frustrations were contributing factors that led to the Arab Spring in some North African and Middle East countries – and in South Africa unions and politicians have described the same problem a ticking time bomb.
The shortage of technical skills forces companies in many countries to import foreign labour, said Khozema Shipchandler, a senior businessman with experience of multinational operations in North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey.
"We want to employ locally, but that's the easiest thing to say and hard to do. You have to have people with technical skills," he told the plenary session.
Perceptions need changing
Evans-Klock said the perception that vocational training does not lead to good jobs is widespread. Yet "most vocational jobs are highly technical [and] they are very intellectually stimulating. We need [to do away with the notion] that people in vocational training are those that can't make it to university. If we can turn that around, we'll see employment get better," he said.
Mervi Jansson-Aalto, a leading voice in Finnish vocational learning, told the Mail & Guardian technical institutions in her country now attract more than 50% of the country's student population.
The country has shaken off the image of these institutions as a "dead end". "They are a real option in finding a job and an equal route in terms of not being a dead end. Later on in your life if you want to go to university that's quite possible."
Jansson-Aalto said another winning strategy for Finland is that vocational and academic institutions get similar resources from the country's government. "The national board of education and the ministry of education have treated these tracks equally. So they get equal funding [and] equal focus in development of pedagogy."
Bongani Nkosi is a guest of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development at the World Innovation Summit for Education