Graduates more likely to be employed if they studied a vocational course at sixth form or college

A new study shows an established vocational route into degree study, and that vocational skills are a ‘recipe for resilience’ in a changing labour market.

New research published today indicates that university graduates who only studied vocational qualifications at sixth form or college were more likely to be in employment than their peers who had studied purely academic qualifications such as A levels.

Analysis of Labour Force statistics in a new study by London Economics, commissioned by Pearson, showed that, across age groups and gender, graduates with BTECs had an average full-time employment rate of 80%, compared with 74% for A level-only graduates.

On the day a government consultation closes on the future of vocational qualifications being taught in schools and colleges, these figures underline the role that qualifications that develop vocational skills could play in reducing the UK’s historically high unemployment rates now and in the future.

Although many more A level students progress to university than those studying vocational qualifications, thousands are now starting degrees having completed BTECs and other qualifications, often after a period of time in the workplace. Almost 40% of BTEC learners are aged 27 or above when they achieve their degree, compared with only about 10% of A level learners.

The figures indicate that A level learners take a much more ‘linear’ path compared with ‘non-linear’ BTEC learners, who have a mix of education and employment experience. However, over half of BTEC graduates progress straight to university on completing college or after a short break.

Figures showed that graduates who had studied BTECs at school and college were on a par with their A level-only peers in terms of the jobs they subsequently secured. On some measures they did better: more BTEC-only graduates were found to be working as Managers, Senior Officials, or in Associate Professional roles compared with A level-only graduates (48.9% versus 45.1%).

The other main findings of the report included:

  • 56.1% of BTEC students with a degree studied Engineering, Maths and Computing and Business and Finance compared with only 26.8% of A level students.
  • On average, BTEC students graduating from university are as likely to achieve a first-class degree as their A level peers (BTEC graduates at 12.2% compared with 11.4% for A level). 
  • Male graduates with a BTEC in the Tyne and Wear and northern regions, West Yorkshire, East Anglia, parts of the West Midlands and Northern Ireland earn more than those who only did A levels at college and sixth form, though this effect is reversed in London and the south east.
  • Across all regions, BTEC graduates in skilled trade occupations earn more.

Rod Bristow from Pearson said:

“We already know that there is a strong positive correlation between having a vocational qualification such as a BTEC and being in employment. This new data shows that vocational qualifications, like A levels, also give you the opportunity to excel at university.

“This research is no reason to rest on our laurels. With unemployment rates at a historic high amongst young people, we need to learn the lessons from these insights.

“All students, whether they are taking an academic or a vocational route, should have the opportunity to develop the workplace skills and experiences that employers clearly value, and which are enabling success at degree level in disciplines that are critical to growing our economy, like Engineering and Computing.”

Dr Gavan Conlon of London Economics said:

“Having looked at the data of tens of thousands of workers across several sectors over a number of years, this analysis is clear that those learners who attained their degree through the BTEC route are more likely to be employed.

“With a rapidly changing economy, people need to continually update and adapt their skills, and we’re seeing people take up degrees later in life, as well as school leavers. The blend of skills and motivation developed through vocational qualifications and time in work may prove to be the recipe for long-term resilience in the employment market.”