Adults with upper-secondary VET qualifications generally have lower levels of literacy and numeracy proficiency than people with general upper-secondary education, according to the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). This is not surprising.
The survey measures skills that general education programmes emphasise more than VET programmes, but it does not measure VET specific skills. Yet, PIAAC’s findings signal the importance of fostering information-processing skills, such as literacy and numeracy, to have more adaptable VET graduates in the labour market.
Literacy skills of adults with vocational education differ significantly across European countries
Adults with upper secondary VET qualifications generally have lower levels of literacy and numeracy proficiency than people with general upper secondary education.
Across the 18 European countries (and sub-national regions) () participating in the survey, the mean literacy scores are lower for adults aged 25 to 64 with vocationally-oriented rather than for those with general education (at upper- or post-secondary non-tertiary education. In some European countries, such as the Netherlands, Finland or Sweden the mean literacy proficiency for VET graduates is significantly above the OECD average of 265 points (see Box) for this group. In others, such as Belgium (Flanders), Spain, France, Italy and Poland it is well below (Figure 1).
Definition of proficiency levels
The Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), assessed the proficiency of adults from the ages of 16-65 in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments. These skills are key information-processing competencies that are relevant to adults in many social contexts and work situations. They are regarded as necessary for fully integrating and participating in the labour market, education and training, and social and civic life.
To help interpret the results, the reporting scales are divided into “proficiency levels” defined by particular score-point ranges. Six proficiency levels are defined for literacy and numeracy (below Level 1and Levels 1 to 5). Problem solving in technology-rich environments has four levels (below Level 1 and Levels 1 to 3). Each proficiency level is described in terms of the types of tasks adults can successfully complete with proficiency scores in the range of that level.
Figure 1: Mean literacy proficiency in European countries for adults aged 25-64 whose highest level of education is upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education (2012)
Source: OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC).
Differences between VET and general education
Although the gap between literacy rates of adults with VET and general education is found in all countries, it varies considerably with notable differences between them. Differences in literacy rates tend to be significantly smaller in Estonia, Ireland and Sweden. They are much larger in some European countries that separate vocational and general learning tracks at upper secondary level such as, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland. France, Slovakia and Finland, have the largest gaps in numeracy skills
Some countries, such as the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden, have relatively high literacy scores for adults irrespective of the type of education (vocational or general) at upper- or post-secondary non-tertiary education level. In others, such as Spain, Ireland and Poland, adults have relatively low scores regardless of their type of education.
Despite their lower literacy levels, there is evidence that individuals with vocational upper- or post-secondary non-tertiary education do better on the labour market. Across OECD countries for which data are available, 75% of individuals with a vocational upper- or post-secondary non-tertiary qualification as their highest qualification () are employed – a rate five percentage points higher than for their general education equivalents. VET may compensate for some skills disadvantages of young people by giving them better access to employment. Yet, the findings from PIAAC signal the importance of fostering information-processing skills, like literacy and numeracy, to have more adaptable VET graduates in the labour market.
Skills for tomorrow’s jobs
Skills individuals acquire through VET may be of limited use in a rapidly changing labour market. Level 3 on PIAAC proficiency scale () could be regarded as relevant for adults in todays’ world in many social contexts and work situations. It can also be seen as the level necessary for fully integrating and participating in the labour market, education and training, and social and civic life.
In many European countries, only one third of adults aged 25-64 with vocational education have proficiency Level 3 on PIAAC literacy scale; only one in twenty make it to Level 4/5 (Figure 2). Spain has the highest proportion with nearly 80% of adults with VET educational attainment scoring at Level 2 or below. In Belgium (Flanders), Italy or France, the proportion is above 70%. By contrast, in the Netherlands and Sweden, less than 50% of adults with vocational education score at Level 2 or below; in the Netherlands and Finland one in ten make it to Level 4/5.
These differences matter. As the demand for skills shifts towards more sophisticated tasks, jobs increasingly involve analysing and communicating information and as technology pervades all aspects of life, individuals with poor literacy and numeracy skills are more likely to find themselves at risk of unemployment and even social exclusion. Poor performance in information-processing skills limits adults’ access to many basic services, to well-paid and more rewarding jobs, as well as to the further education and training crucial to developing and maintaining skills throughout working life.
Figure 2: Percentage of 25-64 year-olds with vocational or general upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education at proficiency Level 3 in literacy (2012)
Source: OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)
PIAAC results - Just the start
The survey on adult skills enables further investigation of the relationship better skills, educational attainment and labour market success. Cedefop is investigating these issues and developing, with OECD new indicators on skills in VET based on PIAAC data. Cedefop is also using PIAAC data to investigate skill requirements in today’s jobs and find out more about skill mismatch. The aim is to improve our understanding of how skills and qualifications affect labour market integration and to support policy learning across countries.
() Austria, Belgium (Flanders), Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom (England and Northern Ireland).
() OECD Education at a Glance (2014)
() Adults performing at Level 3 on PIAAC proficiency scale can understand and respond appropriately to dense or lengthy texts, including continuous, non-continuous, mixed, or multiple pages. They understand text structures and rhetorical devices and can identify, interpret, or evaluate one or more pieces of information and make appropriate inferences. They can also perform multistep operations and select relevant data from competing information in order to identify and formulate responses.