Challenges to technical and vocational education: the changing demands of the twenty-first century

'When the winds of change blow, some build walls, others build windmills'
(Chinese proverb)

1. The era of rapid scientific and technological advancement that we live in has spawned a communications revolution that is pervading every region of the world and creating a global information society. Indeed, the new information and communication technologies are dramatically changing the way people in many parts of the world live, learn, work or think about work. Meanwhile, progress in other areas of science and technology indicate that food production and health care may be revolutionized in the next two to three decades. Yet, there is a growing consciousness that the present pattern of socio-economic development cannot be sustained indefinitely because of its harmful impact on the environment. A shift towards a developmental paradigm that holds sustainability as its central requirement is therefore widely considered an imperative for the new millennium.

2. The political changes following the end of the 'cold war' have led to liberalized trade and movement of people between countries. This trend of globalization has, in combination with technological developments, affected the world population in different and unequal ways. It has resulted in rapid economic benefits for some countries while causing acute social problems for others. In the developed countries, there have been massive changes in the work content of most occupations as well as an overall diminution of work and employment opportunities in the industrial sector. Many low- to medium-technology industries have been relocated in developing countries to benefit from cheaper labour. The workers made redundant as a result have found themselves unqualified to work in jobs created in the high technology and service industries. Thus while globalization has stimulated the high technology and service industries, it has placed a heavy social welfare burden on governments in developed countries.

3. In many developing countries, particularly in Africa, technological change and globalization have exacerbated existing unemployment problems that have been due, in some measure, to poor economic performance. Inefficient, labour-intensive industries that could not compete with transnational corporations have had to close down. These industries were unable to modernize as they could not afford the new technologies. Because of a lack of employment opportunities in the formal sector of the economy, individuals in many developing countries have resorted to the informal sector to subsist. Consequently, the informal sector is growing rapidly and currently represents, in some countries, more than 60 per cent of urban employment opportunities. Another trend that has had a negative impact on industries in some developing countries has been the exodus of skilled people to countries where they are able to earn higher wages.

4. The combination of globalization and technological developments has enabled highly skilled technical personnel living in developing countries to provide services for industries in developed countries. Computer software developers and telephone service providers in developing countries are significantly less expensive than their counterparts in developed countries and are being employed in increasing numbers by transnational corporations that obtain their services while they live in their home countries.

5. Globalization has affected some countries in a process of transition towards a market economy by confronting them with the inefficiency of their industries and placing demands for new skills and trades. The obsolete knowledge, skills and work attitudes of their labour forces have led to growing unemployment in these countries. Their governments have difficulty in paying the wages of employees in state-owned industries while initial investments by transnational corporations appear to thrive, generating some employment for young urban people. As a result, relative affluence and a degree of social transformation are evident among groups of urban youth while many older urban people and rural people in general suffer acute economic hardship and social exclusion.

6. The sudden economic contraction in the south-east Asian countries may also be a by-product of globalization. Despite achieving rapid industrial and social development during the past three to four decades, these countries had failed to put in place sound fundamental economic policies. While globalization helped their new manufacturing industries to compete in the world market, it also exposed the weaknesses in their economic fundamentals and resulted in a financial crisis that drastically reduced the value of their currencies. However, this crisis is considered transient and is perceived by some as a correction that was inevitable as these economies had expanded so rapidly. During the transformation from agrarian economies to active industrial competitors in the world market, these countries invested heavily in basic education. Resources were also channelled to TVE with the aim of building a workforce capable of supporting a growing industrial sector. The result was a ready pool of skilled personnel that entrepreneurs found cheaper than the industrial workforces in the developed countries. The trained personnel in these countries who are the product of sharply focused education policies are expected to help overcome the present financial difficulties through high productivity in manufacturing quality goods for export.

7. While globalization has increased economic growth in some countries, it has also demanded heightened competitiveness. Production systems based on new technologies that enable greater productivity and flexibility as well as workers with updated skills and more independent initiative are required if industries are to survive in this climate. Thus, with the demand for greater productivity, new technologies are radiating into almost every industrial sector, including the traditional labour-intensive industries. Rapid technological change makes skills obsolete very quickly and demands higher levels of initiative and more frequent retraining. This changing technological scenario may also require workers to change jobs several times during their working lives.

8. The basic challenge of the globalized economy is therefore the requirement to adjust and compete in a rapidly changing environment. Central to the effort to compete in the twenty-first century is the preparation of a productive, flexible workforce. Every country will be obliged to enable its citizens to acquire the skills necessary to survive and to improve their quality of life because the demands of the workplace are likely to leave people without skills unemployed and unemployable. Yet there are large numbers of school leavers worldwide who are unlikely to obtain formal employment and who are even more in need of these survival skills. Inadequate opportunities for formal employment are now becoming a reality in most countries, developed as well as developing. The realization is growing that individuals will have to be prepared for a range of employment options, including self-employment. Many may have to hold down two or more jobs simultaneously in order to maintain a reasonable quality of life.

9. TVE is the component of education most directly concerned with the acquisition of the knowledge and skills required by workers in most manufacturing and service industries. Although TVE may not create jobs, it can provide people with the skills required to give them better opportunities for self-employment, wage employment, re-employment and even informal sector initiatives. TVE needs to strengthen basic cognitive learning to give students and trainees more flexibility to meet the changing requirements of the workplace. It must also help them develop the competence to move on to higher learning. Newly emerging high technology jobs often require job seekers to have immediate 'plug-and-play' skills, cross-disciplinary knowledge, better communication and interpersonal skills, and the ability to work in teams. Other attributes such as motivation, creativity, self-adjustment, commitment, attention to detail and a sense of responsibility are critical to success and must take equal priority to functional skills in TVE. Initial training must also equip people with fundamental knowledge that will enable them to retrain themselves in mid-career for a change of trade or profession.

10. In the last several decades changing socio-economic trends have resulted in an evolution from 'supply driven' TVE to 'demand driven' TVE. The new global economic environment demands a further re-orientation in TVE to render it more responsive to the needs of students, workers and employers. Besides providing training for the world of work, TVE must prepare a new generation for work in a lifelong learning process. Their training must integrate environmental considerations, including the judicious use of natural resources and the need for sustainable development. A fundamental question that confronts the stakeholders of TVE at this juncture is

Whether the need for a sustainable development paradigm predicates that TVE should now be 'developmental need driven'

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