Monday, 24 October 2016

Using survey data to estimate the value of vocational qualifications


CVER's Steven McIntosh and Damon Morris, from University of Sheffield, look at the value of vocational qualifications


An important part of the research programme at CVER is to investigate the ‘returns’ to vocational qualifications, that is, the wage premiums earned by individuals who hold such qualifications. The results of such research provide important information to policy-makers about the value the labour market places on qualifications, as well as to individuals making decisions about what courses to pursue. Our work will provide up-to-date evidence on this topic, using a comprehensive range of data sets and methodologies.

The characteristics of those who participate in vocational learning will be different to those of individuals who do not, with these differences often unobserved. Thus, it is very difficult to attribute differences in the wage premia to qualifications alone (when motivation, ability, family background etc. also play a role). The challenge is to use the most appropriate methodology, that produces as fair a comparison as possible. Work within CVER continues in this area, considering a range of data sources, both administrative and survey-based, and methodologies, in order to determine what factors affect the estimated results, and which estimates are likely to be the most accurate. 

This blog summarises the findings from the first stage in this research work, estimating the returns to vocational education using survey data. In particular we used Labour Force Survey (LFS) data from the period 1997-2015. The LFS provides detailed information on respondents’ qualifications, allowing us to disaggregate the results by type, level and subject of qualification, as well as by the gender of the learner.

Returns are estimated by comparing the wages of those with a particular qualification (i.e. ‘the treatment group’) and those in a suitable control group without the qualification, whilst controlling for any differences in observable characteristics between them, such as gender, age, ethnicity, region of residence, full-time/part-time status and public/private sector status. The treatment group can be defined as all those with a qualification, or as those individuals who hold the qualification as their highest. We estimated both, but here only summarise the results from the highest qualification specifications (so-called ‘marginal’ returns).

We first compared learners with each qualification to a control group of individuals with no qualifications. Not surprisingly, the wage premium earned relative to this control group was larger, the higher the level of the qualification. Within levels, a consistent pattern was found, in that the qualifications that earned the largest returns were BTEC qualifications. For example, holding other things constant, an individual with an HNC/HND as their highest qualification (a level 4, sub-degree level qualification) earns on average 58% more than an individual with no qualifications, while an individual with an ONC/OND as their highest qualification (a level 3 qualification) earns on average 39% more than an individual with no qualifications. The equivalent return for an NVQ at level 3 is 26%, while at level 2 is just 5%. When estimated separately for men and women, the estimated returns to BTEC, City and Guilds and apprenticeship qualifications tend to be higher for men than for women, while the returns to RSA qualifications (which are secretarial qualifications) are higher for women than for men.

The returns discussed so far are all relative to individuals with no qualifications. But that is not what is of most interest to policy-makers and potential learners, who want to know by how much their wages will increase if they move one level up the qualifications hierarchy. When estimating the returns to each qualification, we therefore changed the control group to contain individuals whose highest qualification was one level below the qualification of interest (holding either academic, vocational, or any qualifications at that lower level). Figure 1 shows the results when the control groups consist of those individuals whose highest qualification is specifically a vocational qualification at one level lower. Thus, for each type of qualification separately, the figure shows how wages increase by moving up the qualifications hierarchy via the vocational route, since the comparison group in each case is vocational qualifications at the level below. We can see that individuals will reach the highest wages through BTEC qualifications, which was not surprising given the findings discussed in the previous paragraph. The interesting thing to note about Figure 1, however, is that the slopes of the lines are quite similar across qualification types. Thus the main advantage of BTEC qualifications lies in the ‘good start’ that they make, with higher returns than the other qualification types at low education levels. Thereafter, wages increase with levels at a similar rate.

Figure 1: Marginal Returns relative to Vocational Qualifications at Level One




We also considered the subject of study of the vocational qualifications. Looking across different types of qualifications, a common pattern was observed, in that the highest returns are always obtained by Engineering and Construction qualifications, followed by Business and Management qualifications. The lowest are received by holders of Caring, Childcare and Hotels and Catering qualifications. These results are illustrated in Figure 2 for the case of NVQ3 qualifications. For each qualification, the circle shows the point estimate of the return, with the green lines around that circle illustrating the confidence interval around that estimate. The point estimate shows our best estimate of the true return, while the confidence interval shows a range, within which we are 95% sure that the true return lies.


Figure 2: Wage Returns to NVQ3 Qualifications by Subject Area





Of course, part of this difference across subjects is due to the fact that, for example, engineering jobs are typically better paid than childcare jobs. For a young person undecided about what career they are going to follow, this is exactly the information that they would want to know; which qualifications lead to a better paid career. But for someone already working in, say, childcare, the comparison with engineers would be irrelevant, and what they would want to know is how much their earnings would rise within childcare if they obtained a higher qualification, relative to someone working in childcare with lower qualifications. Such returns are illustrated in Figure 3, again for the case of NVQ3, though other qualifications produce very similar patterns. The green circle shows the estimate of the return to each subject, with surrounding confidence interval, while the red circle shows the estimate of the return to each subject when the holder works in a job appropriate for that subject. For example, for Childcare say, the red return shows the estimated wage premium relative to unqualified individuals working in childcare, while the green return shows the estimated wage premium relative to unqualified individuals in all other jobs. As we can see, the former is typically larger than the latter, often significantly so (when the confidence intervals do not overlap). The highest returns within occupations, for the case of NVQ3, are now for Hair and Beauty, where individuals with a Hairdressing qualification earn around 33% more than unqualified workers in the same profession.

Figure 3: Wage Returns to NVQ3 Qualifications by Subject Area and Sector of Work


In conclusion, the results summarised above show that there is a wide range of returns to vocational qualifications, varying by type, level and subject of qualification. So one can’t talk about a return to vocational qualifications in a general sense. The key issue is to show which qualifications work best, and for whom. Work in CVER is continuing, to answer such questions.

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Further reading: "Labour Market Returns to Vocational Qualifications in the Labour Force Survey", CVER Research Discussion paper, October 2016

Monday, 3 October 2016

Low-achieving teenagers: Evidence from France of the potential of low-cost interventions to clarify educational options

Eric Maurin from the Paris School of Economics is an expert advisor for CVER and presented this work at our recent conference


A simple programme of meetings facilitated by school principals and targeted at low-achieving 15 year olds can help them to identify educational opportunities that fit both their tastes and their academic ability. That is the central finding of a large-scale randomised experiment in Paris, conducted by economic researchers Dominique Goux, Marc Gurgand and Eric Maurin.

Their study, which is forthcoming in the Economic Journal, reveals that the outcome of an intervention in deprived neighbourhoods of Paris has been a very significant reduction in the number of students repeating educational years (‘grade repetition’) and in the number of students dropping out of school altogether. Compared with most existing interventions, this is a very low cost way to help young people who struggle at school to find the educational track most suited to their needs.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Benefits of Alternatives to Conventional College: Labor-Market Returns to Proprietary Schooling

Christopher Jepsen, with Peter Mueser and Kyung-Seong Jeon, looks at the labor-market returns to U.S. proprietary schooling (often known as for-profit schooling)


Researchers are increasingly able to estimate the long-term wage returns to education using administrative data. This research reports findings from the US that were presented at the CVER seminar series in 2015 and have recently been published in a discussion paper (Jepsen et al. 2016).


In recent years, U.S. states have drastically reduced funding for education, and public community colleges and universities are particularly hard hit (Phelan, 2014). Proprietary schools (also known as for-profit schools) have been growing dramatically over the last decade, filling a gap in demand for postsecondary education, particularly for low-income and nonwhite individuals. The vast majority of students in this sector pursue vocational qualifications such as certificates and associate’s degrees in areas of study including health, transportation, and trades (i.e. construction, etc.).

Career guidance and apprenticeships: new research on vocational education

Guglielmo Ventura, CVER researcher, gives an account of the Centre's first annual conference



In early September, LSE hosted the first annual conference of the Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER). This event proved to be a great opportunity to share insights from research on the economics of vocational education. Numerous researchers from the field came together to present evidence on how vocational education works in different countries and how it can be improved.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Reflections on the Employer Support for Higher Level Skills report

John Denham, Professorial Research Fellow of the IPA and former  Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, reflects on report findings


For the past 20 years and longer, Ministers of all parties have wanted to see more employers support employees and apprentices to gain higher levels skills and higher education. With strong bi-partisan support in a relatively non-ideological area of policy it seems odd that employer supported higher skills have not become a more important part of the skills and education system.

Friday, 15 July 2016

If A-Levels aren’t for you, choices at age 16 could now get a whole lot simpler

CVER Director, Sandra McNally, on some of the recommendations of the recent Sainsbury report


The incoming British prime minister Theresa May has outlined a vision of a country that “works not for the privileged few but that works for every one of us … because we’re going to give people control over their lives”. A good place for her to start would be to make sure that the government sticks to its promise to implement the 34 recommendations set out in a new report that aims to radically simplify the education choices available for people after age 16.

The Sainsbury report, published on July 8, sets out a blueprint for technical education for young people and adults. The report is wide-ranging and ambitious, with recommendations that cover many aspects of the way education is provided. The government’s Post-16 Skills Plan, published on the same day, says the Sainsbury recommendation will be accepted “unequivocally where that is possible within existing budgets”.
Plethora of choices

Friday, 17 June 2016

The Institute for Apprenticeships must promote innovation and productivity


Dr Hilary Steedman has been engaged in research on apprenticeships, vocational training and labour market transitions since the early 1980s. Here she writes on the priorities for the new Institute for Apprenticeships.


In the past five years over two million individuals of working age have started an apprenticeship. Their life chances depend upon the quality and transferability of the skills standards that provide the structure for learning in apprenticeship.

Thousands of workplaces and facilitators are involved in delivering the skills embodied in apprenticeship skills standards. Effective governance is needed to ensure that, wherever the apprenticeship is provided, recognised skills and relevant knowledge have been developed and reliably assessed. This is a challenging and complex task requiring understanding of the perspectives of all the main actors - apprentices, business and the public interest.