Author: Kenny Muscat, Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST)
Reviewed and edited by Sarah Elson-Rogers, UNESCO-UNEVOC International Centre for TVET
Teachers and trainers are among the “key actors” (CEDEFOP, 2022a) involved in providing relevant and meaningful learning experiences to learners in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). They are seen to be “central” to TVET (OECD, 2021) and they work in a challenging context characterised by innovation, globalisation, advancing technology and a changing society (CEDEFOP, 2022a).
In recent years, disruptions caused by technology, climate, migration, political instability and more recently the Covid-19 pandemic have affected the economy, labour markets, and hence education. TVET does not exist in a bubble and has also been affected, making the work of teachers and trainers, who are entrusted with the future of millions of students around the world, more challenging.
In 2015, the United Nations (UN) member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and established 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to provide “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future” (UN, 2015). SDG 4 aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Of relevance to TVET are Targets 4.3, 4.4 and 4.5, which directly reference vocational education, hence making the role of TVET teachers and trainers crucial to the achievement of this ambitious agenda.
Being key actors in, and central to TVET, teachers and trainers are often discussed by policymakers, academics, researchers, TVET leaders and professionals, industry partners, students and the general public. Some recurrent themes of these discussions include: their required knowledge, skills, competence and attitudes; the working tasks they carry out; the effectiveness of their work with students; the need for their professional development and learning; their readiness to adapt to continuous changes; and the impact of their work on the quality of TVET.
This article examines different profiles of TVET teachers and trainers at a global level and provides an insight into the TVET teachers at the centre of the ongoing discussions and reforms. It provides a context for the important discussions on these key actors in TVET. The article presents some data on the population of TVET teachers and trainers according to criteria such as: job title; gender; age; career stage; global region; vocational area; level of education; pre-service training; in-service training; involvement in industry; and dual professionalism.
Key points on each major criterion are followed by reflections from the perspectives of the author: a TVET practitioner.
Job title for TVET teachers
Across the globe, the staff who teach in TVET settings are referred to in various ways. The title of this article refers to teachers and trainers which are common job titles used in TVET. However, other job titles such as lecturer, instructor and mentor are also in use.
A teacher is usually the professional responsible for the learners’ experience provided by a formal TVET institution or training centre, which may also include the responsibility of components of learning at the place of work. The job title of an instructor is used for similar contexts – as is the case of Kenya and other countries. The job title of an instructor may also be used for subject areas which are highly practical in nature such as hairdressing, tile laying, driving, and welding.
In some countries, the job title of lecturer is used to differentiate between someone teaching in initial TVET and someone teaching in continuing TVET. An example of this is Malta, where someone teaching a vocational subject in compulsory education (initial TVET) has the title of teacher whereas someone teaching the same subject at a higher level in post-compulsory education (continuing TVET) has the title of lecturer. In South Africa, someone teaching in a TVET college also has the title of lecturer.
A trainer is generally the person at a workplace, responsible for the training of TVET learners during work-based learning activities such as work placements, apprenticeships, or internships. In some instances, the job title of mentor is used interchangeably with that of a trainer.
CEDEFOP (2022b) also refers to teachers-methodologists, apprenticeship inspectors, master craftspeople, training supervisors and assessors.
The various titles used in TVET may be necessary to differentiate work done. However, it can also possibly affect the status of educators in TVET. In general, teachers already suffer from a low status, and according to UNESCO (2022) this is one of the reasons why a worldwide deficit of 69 million teachers exists. It would be interesting to understand how different titles for TVET educators affects their status and their self-perception.
Gender disparity in TVET
Goal 5 of the UN’s SDGs for 2030 focuses on gender equality and empowering all women and girls. However, there are still significant barriers to achieving gender equality among teachers and trainers in TVET.
Across OECD countries, most teachers at primary and secondary levels in general education are female, but over half of the teaching force at tertiary level are male. In Ghana, gender disparities among trainers and learners in TVET is a challenge, where technical education is dominated by men while vocational education is dominated by women (Amoamah et al., 2016). While opportunities for women to access technical education have increased, not enough women decide to do so – possibly contributing to wide gender gaps among TVET teachers and trainers. In Finland, where TVET is viewed as an attractive alternative to learners, similarities exist where male learners dominate technical programmes whereas female learners dominate health, welfare and services programmes. However, gender distribution among TVET teachers is fairly even (Finnish National Agency for Education, 2019).
A balanced gender representation, wherever that is, is always healthy and this applies to TVET too. To improve the current situation, best practices on how to achieve more gender-balanced TVET institutions should be shared. Furthermore, it would be interesting to understand whether male and female TVET teachers and trainers face the same challenges at work, and whether they have the same opportunities and receive the same support.
Age, experience and career cycles of TVET teachers
Education institutions around the world are the workplace for teachers of various ages. An ageing teaching profession is a concern since this means that teaching staff will soon be reaching retirement age and need to be replaced. Across OECD countries, on average, young teachers, under the age of 30, make up 12% of the teachers in primary education, 11% in lower secondary education and 8% in upper secondary education. In Finland, over 50% of TVET teachers are over the age of 50. TVET teacher shortages are a concern for several OECD countries – supply is around 80% of the demand in Germany, 70% in Korea and 44% in Sweden.
Developed countries are experiencing ageing populations, and an increasing average working age of employees in the labour market. When researching the effect of an ageing population on the “technological up-to-dateness” of workers, Berk and Weil (2015) establish that with older teachers, new employees in the labour market are “further from the technical frontier”, because they “pass on knowledge that was current further in the past”. While this can be contested as it depends on the individual teachers’ disposition towards professional development and learning, this can be problematic for education in general, but more so for TVET which is synonymous with preparing students for employment, especially in an era dominated by rapidly changing technology.
While age is not always an indicator of the stage of career of a TVET teacher, since many may have worked in industry before transitioning to a teacher role, there might be observable patterns in the career stage of TVET teachers and trainers.
The “beginning” years of a teacher are characterised by experimenting with different approaches in pedagogy, looking for support from superiors and colleagues, and also developing confidence. The “experienced” years of a teacher are characterised by more stability at the place of work, more confidence in the role of teaching, the ability to advocate for change, and supporting less experienced colleagues. As teachers near retirement age, they may continue supporting TVET institutions in their mission but may no longer be the driving force to adopt new teaching practices.
TVET leaders and policy makers should explore the reasons why there are fewer younger and ‘beginner’ teachers and trainers and what can be done to attract more of them into the profession. It is worth understanding whether the teaching methods adopted by younger and older teachers, and their performance differ. If this is the case, is age an important factor which affects their motivation? What can teachers in different age categories and at different career stages learn from each other? Are policy makers and TVET leaders supporting communities of practice to ensure exchange and peer learning amongst the TVET teaching profession?
The importance of context – where do TVET teachers teach?
TVET is a globally recognised form of education which is highly contextual in its systems and operation. The European Union (EU) views TVET as the “engine of economic development and international competitiveness” and in recent years has invested significantly and taken several initiatives to improve its status and hence its attractiveness to learners. One such initiative was the introduction of the European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET) following the success of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) in higher education.
The African Union recognizes that youth unemployment and underemployment are challenges faced by most African governments and that TVET is an important response to these challenges. A continental strategy, which was revised in 2018, renews efforts to invest more in TVET at a continental level.
In Oceania, Australia gives prominence to TVET, to the extent that the country has a well- developed TVET system which enjoys a high degree of confidence. In particular, TVET in Australia is characterized by flexibility that allows provider autonomy and innovation to adapt according to local contexts.
TVET teachers and trainers are influenced and affected by local and regional policies and the TVET ecosystem. Levels of government funding, involvement of industry, centralisation, autonomy, access to professional development opportunities, socio-economic status may all impact the attractiveness of becoming a TVET teacher. While TVET teachers and trainers in several institutions have access to state-of-the-art premises and technology and can afford to be innovative in their teaching activities, others struggle to access basic resources such as a stable internet connection. This may affect teachers’ motivation, the teaching approaches adopted and student learning.
If education, including TVET, is really the answer to global social and economic problems, then at a global level there needs to be more political and financial commitment. Resources are crucial and TVET teachers cannot be effective if they lack up-to-date equipment and infrastructure underpinned by robust curricula, assessment and qualifications systems. This is especially true when considering ambitions to promote digital skills and to deliver more TVET digitally.
Vocational Area of TVET teachers
A further differential between TVET teachers and trainers is the vocational area in which they teach. Vocational areas differ in the level and speed of automation; technological development and change which can impact TVET curricula, pedagogy and equipment necessary. Areas that are heavily based on technology, e.g. automotive engineering, networking, pharmacy, and graphic design, may be subject to more regular changes than those which are less dependent on technology.
Since TVET is highly linked to the labour market, what TVET institutions teach greatly depends on the local context and current labour market needs. Fishing-dependent and agriculture-dependent regions give prominence to these vocational areas and their TVET institutions need to be staffed with qualified teachers and trainers who can teach to the occupations within those sectors. Similarly, manufacturing-dependent regions, need to have qualified teachers and trainers who teach technology to train prospective technicians and machine operators.
At the same time, TVET teachers are expected to have foresight into future local skills needs and potential disrupters such as shifting market trends and climate change. To give an example, Malta transformed its economy from one dependent on textile manufacturing to one highly dependent on services. While during 1980s, sewing was an important vocational area, in more recent years it has been overtaken by other areas such as aviation maintenance, i-gaming and printing. This raises numerous questions not just about the preparation of TVET teachers but also whether the learner in-take has the necessary level of education for this adjustment.
Such changing labour market needs translate into changing needs in TVET institutions, and this includes human resource requirements. While some vocational areas become obsolete, others become in high demand and new ones emerge. This is one reason why continuous professional development and learning is necessary for TVET teachers and trainers, whether this is a process of upskilling to remain relevant to a vocational area or to reskill to teach a new vocational area (if this is feasible). This reality contrasts significantly when compared to general education where changes in curricula exist but to a lesser extent.
Prior Educational Background and Industrial Experience of TVET teachers
An important difference between TVET teachers and trainers is their background, in terms of qualifications (level and type) and work experience. In Europe, different countries require different qualifications and/or competences to teach in VET and these include: academic qualifications, work experience, state examinations, foreign language ability, practitioners / professionals, flexibility, social criteria, CPD and supervised practice (CEDEFOP, 2022b).
TVET institutions in several countries have increased the entry level qualification to become a TVET teacher. In Finland, the requirements to start professional teacher education leading to a career as a TVET teacher is a degree completed in a university or University of Applied Sciences, together with a minimum of three years’ work experience in a field related to the degree. In Malta, the requirements to start a Master’s in Teaching and Learning, which leads to teaching VET subjects in secondary schools (initial TVET), is a first degree in the vocational area being taught. In Kenya, TVET trainers’ qualifications requirements also include a bachelors’ degree. These scenarios are already indicative of the importance given to the level of qualification but also to the work experience before becoming a teacher.
While increasing the entry level requirements for TVET teachers may improve quality in teaching and learning, it is not always possible to request a minimum of a bachelors’ degree for vocational areas where there are no qualifications at this level of education, e.g. tile laying and plumbing. Hence, a one-size-fits-all approach in the academic background of TVET teachers is not suggested if important vocational areas are to continue existing.
The TVET teachers’ academic background and work experience before starting their career in teaching impacts how continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities and requirements may be perceived. Teachers who have started teaching immediately after finishing their education, and who lack work experience, can benefit significantly from training in industry. Those who have extensive work experience but lack academic qualifications may in turn benefit from CPD, which helps them improve their pedagogical development. The availability of CPD itself is also system dependent. In some EU countries it is mandatory and linked to salaries and/or career progression (e.g, Spain, Poland and Slovakia), whereas participation is voluntary in others (see CEDEFOP, 2022b, p36).
The job description of a TVET teacher
While TVET teachers and trainers are all entrusted with preparing students for employment in different vocational fields, their work obligations vary, in some instances significantly. The following list indicates some common tasks of TVET teachers and trainers, but the list is not exhaustive:
- Prepare teaching and learning activities to achieve learning outcomes of unit/programme;
- Prepare assessment, correct students’ work and provide feedback;
- Manage students’ learning;
- Manage students’ behaviour;
- Support students on academic, vocational and personal matters;
- Quality assurance duties (e.g. verifying assignment brief, verifying corrected students’ scripts, etc);
- Perform administrative work;
- Visit students at the place of work while they are engaged in work-based learning activities;
- Identify industry partners that are willing to collaborate with TVET institutions;
- Liaise with industry and gather feedback on existing units/programmes;
- Liaise with other TVET institutions to share best practices and/or to collaborate;
- Liaise with several stakeholders for various reasons (e.g. parents/legal guardians as part of compulsory education);
- Collaborate with other teachers and trainers, and TVET leaders to plan the academic year and the students’ overall learning experiences;
- Update curricula in accordance with feedback from industry, updates in legislation, own suggestions;
- Engage in research activities/projects;
- Mentor new TVET teachers and trainers;
- Engage with the community during events that help to promote TVET (e.g. exhibitions that demonstrate students’ projects, open days, etc);
- Engage with professional development and learning opportunities (related to pedagogy and to the vocational area).
The tasks comprising a TVET teachers’ job description largely depend on context, the level of the programme taught and the nature of the learner. As can be seen from the above list, TVET teachers and trainers are expected to do a wide range of tasks which needs to be acknowledged by leaders and recognised as part of the workload. TVET teachers and trainers may often go the extra mile to support learners, outside working hours and beyond their duties.
Dual professionalism of TVET teachers
A characteristic synonymous with most TVET teachers and trainers is that of dual professionalism – which takes into consideration their pedagogical and professional skills. Kirk (2019) chooses an interesting question as her title for her doctorate research project: “A plumber who teaches or a teacher of plumbing?” implying that TVET teachers have a tendency of seeing themselves more as teachers or as professionals in their respective vocational area.
Some TVET teachers acknowledge that they are first and foremost teachers but still view themselves as being professionals in their vocational area. Others view themselves the other way round – first as professionals in their vocational area. While this may seem trivial, it can be an indication on the teacher’s strengths, preference in professional development and learning, together with the level of engagement and enthusiasm towards the vocational area. A teacher who identifies as a professional first and then as a teacher, may be more confident in the vocational area, may tend to prefer CPD related to the vocational area, and may be in a better position to transmit enthusiasm towards the vocational area to the students. Contrastingly, a teacher who first identifies as a teacher and then as a professional in the vocational area, may be more confident in pedagogy, may tend to prefer CPD related to pedagogy, and may also be in a better position to improve their pedagogical skills e.g. by trying out new teaching and learning methods.
Are policy makers and TVET leaders recognizing the important aspect of dual professionalism of TVET teachers and trainers? And are TVET teachers and trainers making their utmost to remain dual professionals?
TVET teachers’ involvement with industry
While TVET institutions are, in general, expected to collaborate with industry, the type and frequency of collaboration varies. Some reasons to collaborate include:
- Offering students opportunities for work-based learning (e.g. work placements, apprenticeships, internships);
- Offering TVET teachers and trainers opportunities for professional development (e.g. observations, research activities);
- Planning updates in curricula;
- Proposing changes in occupational skills;
- Offering project opportunities for TVET students (e.g. students are asked to solve a technical problem in a manufacturing company as an assessment for a unit);
- Organising joint events to promote a specific vocational area (e.g. hospitals team up with TVET institutions to promote nursing as a career);
- Training company employees.
Another opportunity for collaboration is the concept of the ‘hybrid’ TVET teacher who spends time both teaching in a TVET provider and in-company. Similarly, a ‘hybrid’ TVET teacher based in a TVET provider can spend time as in-company workers to update their skills and to support in-company trainers. This is a model utilised in some sectors in the Netherlands. Hybrid teachers can keep TVET teachers up-to-date whilst also releasing more teaching resources. Students get to meet industry professionals in person, and they have the opportunity to understand what the studies can lead to.
TVET teachers and trainers who remain in touch with industry are in a better position to be up-to-date in their vocational field. However, TVET institutions and their leaders need to understand that staying in touch with industry takes time, and work done in this regard should be recognised as an important aspect of the teachers’ working load.
This article has highlighted the many different contexts in which TVET teachers work and some of the challenges they experience. As TVET continues to respond to global challenges, like climate change, migration, political instability, disruptions and changing societies through inclusion, innovation, digitalization and greening, and as countries make efforts to reach the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, TVET teachers are at the forefront in supporting learners to achieve their potential and thrive in their personal and working lives. However, they can only do so if they are themselves equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills, competences and attitudes. Professional development and learning is key for TVET teachers to evolve and adapt, and this can only lead to positive outcomes if there is an internal motivation and willingness to grow, and enough support from leaders to recognise the time and resources needed to access these opportunities of growth.
Recent years, especially recovering from the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, have reminded us that TVET needs to be resilient, and this can only happen if practitioners themselves are resilient. Teachers and trainers need to be empowered and supported to reach their goals. But in order for this happen, there needs to be a better understanding of what challenges they face and what factors are important to build this resilience and capacity.
As the 21st century learner is being offered flexible learning paths, so too should TVET teachers – especially if the deficit in the number of TVET teachers and trainers is to be addressed. However, to do so, TVET leaders and policy makers must first understand TVET teachers. This article has taken the perspectives of a TVET practitioner and examined factors which differentiate between TVET teachers, and while the factors are not exhaustive, the article is a start to set the context for further research or discussion.
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