Two Norwegian researchers, Jørn Ljunggren and Julia Orupabo, have investigated how descendants of immigrants in vocational training see their educational and professional prospects. Their study (Moving beyond: narratives of higher educational aspirations among descendants of immigrants in vocational training, British journal of sociology of education) is based on interviews with 35 adolescents of whom 30 have minority origins. According to the researchers, this group has been largely overlooked by scholars. Research has instead focused on immigrant descendants succeeding in higher education and moving up the social ladder, on the one hand, and the socially marginalised, on the other.
The researchers point to a striking paradox in the words of the young interviewees: while in their second year of vocational training, all except three express aspirations of moving on to higher education and qualifying for other than vocational occupations. According to Ljunggren and Orupabo, this cannot be explained as resulting from family pressure. It might have been expected, as literature has shown that immigrant youths often face expectations of social mobility. The interviewees state that their parents support them, if they ‘work hard and finish what they have started’. However, the study reveals three recurrent narratives that Ljunggren and Orupabo have named ‘smart, easy and safe’, ‘becoming respectable’ and ‘discrimination and stigma’.
In Norway, vocational training does not exclude moving on to higher university education; it is possible to take extra courses leading to a higher education admission certificate. The interviewees paint a picture of vocational training as a less theoretic and easier track, not closing any doors. But a craft certificate is regarded as a safety net if they should fail higher education. A related discourse reflects ideas of respectability. The young people enrolled in vocational training feel judged and devalued by others, with higher education described as the ticket to better jobs and a better life. Appearing as a person with ambitions seems to be an asset in itself.
These perceptions of vocational training, as easier and less valuable than higher education, are shared with many non-minority young people. What is likely to be more distinctive to minority youths is the concern about stigma and discrimination. Those in the study fear that discrimination will make it difficult to be hired as an apprentice and later as a regular employee. Higher education seems to be regarded as entrance ticket to segments of the labour market where ethnic discrimination is less common. One of the interviewees suggested that minority background may even be an advantage in some higher education professions, in cases where knowledge of different cultures and languages are important additional skills.
The Norwegian labour market needs more people with vocational skills. Jørn Ljunggren and Julia Orupabo draw the conclusion that more needs to be done to promote vocational training and confront the perception many young people have of it as lower-status. Challenges young people with minority background experience in getting apprenticeships and finding employment due to discrimination also need to be addressed. It is important to keep in mind that, for these young people, type of education is not only a question of future occupation but also of integration and a sense of worth in society.