UK NVQ Vocational Qualifications – Turning Around a Branding Disaster
The UK finds itself at one of those momentous turning points in Education. The past 50 years of economic developments in the western economies have been about systematically eliminating a high percentage of manual, semi-skilled, craft and technician jobs either through automation or exporting the jobs to the emerging economies. The response of all governments has been to try to get many more children up to University level. This has been a success story to the extent of producing considerably more graduates. The key to this success has been the “brand value” of a degree – that intangible asset that markets, societies and individuals attach value to. In fact it can be argued that the “brand value” of a university degree has been too successful. It has tended to crowd out the alternatives. The biggest victim has been “vocational qualifications”. This has led to tens of thousands of less academic young people trying for degrees where their life chances would be much better served with vocational qualifications.
In contrast to the branding success of a university degree, vocational qualifications have been a “branding” disaster. This is not to impugn that vocational courses are not equipping young people for skilled jobs or to suggest any lack effort by the colleges that deliver them. It is just that the status of the resulting qualifications is seen by many young people and the general public at large as seriously inferior to a university degree. This gets fed back to the playground. The media amplify the differences with annual pictures of young people throwing their mortar boards in the air on graduation day and total silence for those getting their final vocational qualifications. As a result society loses the means to award respect to those who attain the most advanced vocational qualifications. With it goes an opportunity to communicate an inspiring message of hope to the 50% or so who will never go to University that the appropriate skills training will open-up interesting (and better paid) jobs for them. We are a society that has come to seriously undervalue our master craftsmen (and women) and skilled technicians. This needs to be turned around.
Why do vocational qualifications languish in such low status beyond this crowding out effect of University degrees? First there have been no concerted efforts by the Governments, Colleges and industry to promote the brand image of vocational qualifications. If you want to build a brand it takes a well honed and sustained communications campaign. When NVQ’s were launched this was not done.
Sitting under this lack of marketing effort is a product flaw (from a marketing perspective) in the NVQ structure – it is an undifferentiated qualification product at its highest level. With a University degree there are two sorts of differentiation widely recognised by young people, employers and the general public. The first is the class of the degree and the second is the University it comes from. What is the vocational equivalent to a first from Oxford? Who are the crème de la crème of the NVQ4′s that an employer will pay a wages premium in order to get hold of? Where is the transparency that allows the wider public to distinguish between those that just scraped through and those that excel in a particular skill?
The result is that vocational qualifications are widely perceived as a booby prize for those that fail to make the grade along the purely academic route instead of their rightful place of important qualifications for a wide variety of skills and trades deserving a status in their own right.
This is the worst time to be suggesting that public money is poured into a re-branding campaign to elevate the status of vocational qualifications. At it happens this would be a waste of money anyway until something is first done to create some differentiation for the vocational qualifications themselves. Differentiation is a key to develop a perceived value of a brand.
There is a job to be done by the government and colleges to add a layer (or two) of differentiation. For the sake of example let us assume two layers and label them the silver award and gold award. This has to be standardised across all vocational qualifications. This makes a communications campaign to promote the brand value to the general public much more cost effective. Second, within each skill area the colleges in partnership with their respective industries have to decide what a silver and gold award signifies by way of superior achievement and this must correlate with a superior challenge and effort. This is essential to secure status of acquiring them. Industry must be encouraged to pay higher starting wages for those getting the silver and gold awards. Nothing will be more effective in securing positive feedback to the playgrounds and parents.
If the UK is to be successful in re-balancing its economy industry will need many more skilled workers as well as graduates. In addition a well structured and well promoted vocational educational qualification framework will add a whole new horizon of “perceived” opportunity and chances to earn respect for the 50% of young people not cut out to scale academic mountains. Society has to advance to the point where it is able to recognised excellence in all walks of life.
It is good so see that the Government has now recognised the importance of vocational training . However my point is that this is more than a policy and education challenge…it is a marketing “branding” challenge. It is about identifying excellence within what already exists, building brand value around it and then a sustained communication to promote the brand to the benefit of all who are associated with it. This is more than just a few Ministerial speeches but a professional approach to marketing something important to the country. Successive governments have not been shy about marketing the armed services, privatizations and a host of other things but no Minister seems to have the balls to get out there and market vocational qualifications and without this…the old cultural attitudes will prevail.