The work of Maïlys Korber, who successfully defended her thesis last month, demonstrates that employment prospects in the second half of one’s career are just as good for workers with vocational qualifications as for workers with general educational qualifications.
In her doctoral thesis entitled “The labour market returns to vocational education over the life course”, successfully defended on 12 February at the University of Lausanne, Maïlys Korber shows that for workers who pursued vocational education, employment prospects remain just as positive during the second half of their career as for those with a general education (Baccalaureate), although differences in earnings begin to appear at the career mid-point.
The researcher’s thesis received the highest honours from the jury*, a panel including Prof. Thijs Bol from the Department of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, who emphasised several strengths of the work. In particular, he described the questions underpinning the research as “significant and appropriate”, given that their principal objective was to understand, within a life course perspective, the labour market impact of holding vocational qualifications.
Changes with age
As Maïlys Korber explains, it is acknowledged that vocational education makes obtaining initial employment easier by providing workers with specific skills that can be readily applied in a given trade. However, while these types of qualifications may enable young people to find suitable work at the start of their careers, they can leave older workers vulnerable to technological change and updates in occupational structures.
On the other hand, individuals with general educational qualifications may find it more difficult to gain initial employment because their skills are non-specific. This said, they may have a greater ability to adapt to changes and developments because of their general skills, which are more flexible.
Influence of qualifications throughout the life course
The researcher explored this question in four chapters of empirical analysis – using a range of databases to examine the lifelong employment and earnings of individuals with vocational qualifications, and comparing the results with those of individuals with primarily general educational qualifications, as well as lower-level education. Her research focused on Switzerland, but also includes a comparison with the United Kingdom.
Prof. Bol described Korber’s work as a significant contribution to the literature in this field, summarising it thus: “The central question remains the same throughout all chapters: Do those with vocational qualifications fare better than workers with general educational qualifications, and how does this change throughout their life courses?”
Lower incomes with vocational qualifications
The results show that during the second half of an individual’s career, employment prospects remain just as positive for workers with vocational qualifications as for workers with general educational qualifications. However, vocational education is associated with lower incomes once workers reach the age of thirty – and the disadvantage is greater for women than men. These results relate to education at upper secondary level; the prospects for employment and earnings of workers with higher-level vocational qualifications appear to be just as good as those of workers with general educational qualifications.
Jury praises truly “innovative” technique
Prof. Bol highlighted a further strength of Maïlys Korber’s work, which was her use of a range of approaches to answer the questions posed in her research. She drew on data from the Swiss panel, a comparison between Switzerland and the UK, high-quality data from new labour market entrants, as well as data gathered in vignette form. Prof. Bol went as far as to call this a significant advantage of Korber’s thesis, noting his particular enthusiasm for the use of data from vignettes, which he described as a “truly innovative” technique in this field. He added that her study makes an “important contribution to this emerging area of sociological and economic research”, and expressed his certainty that the thesis would be selected for publication in a high-quality journal and receive the level of attention the work merits.
* Members of the jury : Prof. Eva Green, Vice-doyenne UNIL (President); Prof. Daniel Oesch, ISS (Thesis director); Prof. André Berchtold, ISS; Prof. Thijs Bol, University of Amsterdam ; Prof. Ben Jann, University of Bern; Prof. Irene Kriesi, Institut Fédéral des Hautes Etudes en Formation Professionnelle in Zollikofen; Prof. Leen Vandecasteele, ISS.