Vocational courses can be a quicker path to a job than a general degree

Many students pursue degrees that don't meet employers' needs when vocational training can be a much quicker path to a decent job, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 11:01am

When Angel Lau Yin-wai left school in 2008, she didn't join the other students in the scramble for a university place. She opted instead for a higher diploma programme in entertainment technology at the Institute of Vocational Education.

Lau loved the theatre and knew her future lay in the field. In Form Three she was already seeking out technicians at the Tai Po Civic Centre to learn more about stage management. Her school used its auditorium for many activities, and she seized the chance to find out what the crew's work involved and how to join the profession. She also picked up practical tips about lighting and projection, and operating the sound system.

Youth should think about their career path earlierand get the right training

So after completing Form Five, she didn't hesitate: "I didn't want to study Form Six at all because I wanted to get technical training in stage management as early as possible."

Lau's decision to take the vocational route instead of the usual academic path has paid off. Internships with dance, arts and drama groups during her training led to a couple of job offers after graduation.

"But I decided to do freelance work, which put me in contact with different industry players," the 24-year-old explains. "After one year of freelancing, I found a job as a technician at the Academic Community Hall of Baptist University."

Few of the students receiving their Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education results next week will make choices like Angel's. Since the education reforms of 2009, school leavers have forsaken vocational training in the hope of securing a degree qualification, either directly or indirectly through associate degree courses.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to secure more comfortable, better-paying jobs. The problem is that most wind up in general programmes that don't necessarily meet employers' needs, recruitment experts and vocational educators say.

"Parents and students still cling to the belief that a university education is a sure-fire ticket to a good job, no matter what discipline is studied," says Foster Lam Yuen-ho, a supervisor in the youth employment service of the Hong Kong Young Women's Christian Association. (The association runs a slew of vocational diploma and certificate courses for school leavers.)

But this often turns out to be a false hope, boosted by an explosion of private associate degree programmes and the growth of private university places in Hong Kong.

The number of publicly funded associate degree places offered annually has remained at about 5,000 over the past decade. But government figures show students in full-time, self-financing associate degree programmes rose from 3,732 to 27,822 between 2001-02 and 2011-12 - a sevenfold increase.

Similarly, Shue Yan University was the city's only private tertiary institution in 2001-02, offering three self-financing degree programmes. By 2012-13, there were nine tertiary institutions which ran 97 self-financing degree programmes between them. Students enrolled in such courses rose from 268 to 12,003 in the same period.

"Creating a study [programme] is much easier than creating a job," Lam says. "The work experience and social skills young people learn on the job can be more beneficial than delaying work to spend two years studying something that cannot boost job prospects."

The stampede by tertiary institutions to offer non-vocational programmes has led to a manpower mismatch.

"Manpower projections must be done before the government approves publicly funded degree places, but there's no such requirement for the self-financed sector," Lam says. "The government should do closer monitoring to ensure there's demand in the job market before the associate degree programmes are launched."

Census and Statistics Department figures show the unemployment rate of associate degree holders rose slightly from 3.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2012 to 4.1 per cent in the same period this year - about the same level of joblessness as people with primary education or less.

Tellingly, the figures also show the median income of associate degree holders has shrunk from HK$18,000 in 2001 to HK$12,000 in 2011.

The government should exercise greater oversight over the private tertiary sector, says Chui Yat-hung, a lecturer in youth employment and social policy at Polytechnic University.

"The government must intervene more. The private education sector is totally market driven. Instead of offering courses relevant to industries that are short of manpower, they just offer whatever is popular, like business. Since the government is promoting a knowledge-based economy, society thinks that a university degree is the best way to go.

"Vocational training has long been seen as inferior and meant for those who cannot study well. But in countries like Germany, technicians are held in high esteem," Chui adds.

In these countries, there is a clear path for technical personnel to pursue further education and on-the-job training. Many industries such as logistics, engineering and airport operations now need junior workers.

The value of academic qualifications has fallen sharply as tertiary programmes mushroom, says construction firm boss Eugene Fong Yick-jim.

Fong is also the district governor of Rotary International, which last year initiated a joint project with the Hong Kong Council of Social Service to help young people with career counselling and industry visits.

"Many new [degree] programmes pop up every year that have nothing to do with the labour market," Fong says.

"This mismatch helps explain why graduate salary levels have stagnated over the years. My industry, construction, needs a lot of manpower. Other sectors like health care and logistics are also short of people. "But they have difficulty getting new blood. Many youths do not think about what they want to do. They just snatch at whatever study options and only think about a career afterwards.

"This is a waste of time. They should think about their career path earlier, get relevant training and get a job. They can always go back to school later," Fong says.

Rosanna Leung Ching-man, who heads the hospitality management department at Caritas Bianchi College of Careers, echoes the sentiment.

"Hong Kong is now overflowing with graduates who lack the technical skills needed to secure their first job. Too many parents and young people think that a good future means studying business and working in an office ... but there aren't that many office jobs to go around."

There's also great demand for personnel in areas such as automotive repair, electrical engineering, estate management and health sciences.

Even a junior dispenser starts with a salary of more than HK$10,000, yet few young people seek specialist training in that fields, Leung says.

At the Vocational Training Council, long-time education adviser Leung Yam-shing finds his students are seeking higher qualifications first.

"Several years ago, we began to see a phenomenon where many students go straight on to 'top-up' degree programmes after completing higher diploma studies. Only 10 per cent to 20 per cent students did it five years ago. But now it's 40 per cent," he says.

"But there's no rush for graduates to secure a degree as they can study part time while getting precious work experience," Leung says.

For people hoping to join fields that prize hands-on experience - design for example - or who are less academically-inclined, Leung argues that getting some work experience first is beneficial.

Cherie Lam Cheuk-yee, 23, understands the importance of work experience. After completing a diploma in sports management through the YWCA in 2009, she worked as an adventure training coach at a Cheung Chau youth camp.

After a year, she set up a company with three friends to create leadership and adventure programmes for schools and corporations. At the same time, she also pursued a higher diploma in recreation management with HKUSPACE.

Although she did poorly in public exams, Lam has turned her hands-on knowledge to her advantage and now earns more than HK$20,000 a month.

Jim Chun-hung reckons he made the right decision, too, when he pursued a two-year diploma course in civil engineering after completing Form Seven in 2009.

"I got 13 marks in the Form Five public exam. Although it's not too bad, I wanted to start job training earlier. In 2008, the government announced plans to develop 10 major infrastructure projects, so I knew there would be demand for people in engineering," explains the 28-year-old.

His course featured plenty of hands-on experience. As an intern, Jim was assigned to a team in the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme and got to observe how engineers worked on sites in Sheung Wan. "I learned to do surveying and how to set up offices with containers on the construction site," he says.

Jim's internship with Gammon Construction led to a job offer even before he graduated. He started as an assistant engineer on a salary of HK$13,000, and his pay has since risen to HK$21,000. He hopes to become a construction manager before too long.

"I count myself lucky as some friends who have university degrees haven't been able to find jobs," he says.

All the same, Jim values more in-depth learning, too: "I will study a part-time degree [course] later," he adds.