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European Vocational Skills Week
News article9 October 2018Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion2 min read

A brief history of VET

history of VET

Let’s take a whistlestop tour of the rich history of vocational education and training.

You could say that the history of Vocational Education and Training (VET) stretches right back to prehistoric times. From the moment our primitive ancestors developed proficiency in particular tasks, leading to the division of labour – creating hunters, foragers, builders, cooks and carers – we've been learning and sharing the skills specifically needed for work.

Fast forward tens of thousands of years, and by late medieval times, apprenticeships were common in Europe. In the European guild system, master craftsmen were entitled to employ young people – some as young as ten – to perform cheap labour. In return for their work, they would be given food and lodging, but they would also be taught the skills of the trade, so that they could go on to become master craftsmen themselves. Most apprentices were men, but women could sometimes be found as tailors, bakers or shoemakers.

Cooperation on a European level in VET started in 1958 with the Treaty of Rome, when work began on a common vocational training policy. The Member States hoped working together on a VET strategy would bring benefit to national economies and the common market.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, apprenticeships and on-the-job training remained popular, and vocational training policy continued to be debated at length in Europe. Studies were carried out to find out how a European centre for vocational training could work, which led to the opening of Cedefop, the European centre for the development of vocational training, in 1975. (And, to this day, Cedefop continues to help the European Commission, EU countries, employers' organisations and trade unions to match training provision to labour market needs.)

For most of the 20th century, vocational training was synonymous with apprenticeships and technical schools, providing training in electrical work, plumbing, hairdressing and other trades. It wasn't until the 1980s and 1990s that VET was fully introduced into the mainstream education system.

In the last 30 years, vocational education and training has expanded and diversified, and continues to do so, giving learners more choice than ever. Now, as well as learning the more traditional crafts and trades, you can choose from a vast range of full-time and part-time courses in subjects related to a wide range of careers. As well as practical skills and activities specific to a chosen job role, you can expect to learn highly transferable creative and personal development skills.

There’s a much wider choice of where to study now, too. As well as schools and colleges, many large employers run their own dedicated training facilities. Trainees can still learn on the job, but now have the choice of doing so in a more structured way, in a specialist environment, gaining professional qualifications and experience at the same time. There is also the option to learn from home: many nationally and internationally approved qualifications are available as web-based courses, delivered online by renowned specialists and professionals.

Today, around half of the EU’s population acquires their first job-related skills through VET. Many more go on to develop those skills and to learn new ones through continuing training and other learning at the workplace.

VET has a rich history, but it has an even richer future.