Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Innovation and Vocational Education

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Innovation and Vocational Education

Article excerpt


The innovation studies literature represents something of a paradox. On the one hand it emphasises the important contribution of incremental innovation to economic growth. It emphasises the central role of learning as a driver of incremental innovation, and the predominance of Development over Research in business R&D spending. It recognises that 'low-tech' mature industries both are not only the largest sources of employment and output in advanced economies, but account for a large share of innovation expenditures (Smith 2004; von Tunzelmann and Acha 2005; Hirsch-Kreinsen 2008). The innovation literature points unambiguously to the potential importance of skilled production, trade and technician occupations in technical change, given their central role in designing, installing, adapting, operating and maintaining capital equipment, software and consumer goods (Toner et al. 2004). On the other hand, the innovation literature has, over the last three decades, largely ignored the role of the direct production workforce in innovation:

There is surprisingly little literature within the "innovation studies" tradition with an explicit focus on skills and skills formation, but the importance of skills and skill formation is implicit throughout the literature. (Tether et al. 2005: 73)

Similarly, studies of the 'knowledge economy' workforce have focussed on the 'highly skilled', professional and managerial occupations, and studies of the 'R&D workforce' have focussed on scientists and engineers (Hohlfeld 2008; Shapira 1995). (1)

This article provides a summary introduction to the concept of innovation and overview of the arguments and evidence for the role of VET trained occupations and the VET training system in innovation. The principal focus in terms of 'VET occupations' is on trades and technicians and that part of the 'VET system' which trains them. The goal is to be comprehensive in terms of presenting the key ideas, but the overview is not exhaustive in terms of citing the many authors that have contributed to these arguments.

The argument is structured as follows. Section two defines innovation and uses official survey data to illustrate the significance of VET trained workers in the innovation process. Section three describes the role of the VET system in the national innovation system and the impediments to fulfilling this role. (2) Section four briefly summarises the arguments and evidence on the role of VET in innovation drawn from studies of the political economy of national skill formation systems. (3)

Defining Innovation

The official conceptual framework for analysing and undertaking empirical work on innovation, the Oslo Manual (OECD and Eurostat 2005) defines innovation as 'the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations' (OECD and Eurostat 2005: 46). Certain firm expenditures are deemed to be indicators of implemented innovation activity. Examples include R&D; new equipment or software acquired to introduce a new or improved product, service, process or other innovation; trial production and pilot plants; acquisition of patents, technology licences, trademarks; product and process design; marketing of new or improved products and services, introducing business improvement systems and workforce training related to the introduction of innovations. The scope of innovation activity is thus very wide and, correspondingly, the range of workforce skills to implement innovation is also broad.

Radical and incremental innovation

Innovation is classified into two broad types, radical and incremental, depending on the objective and outcome of the activity (Pavitt 2005). The distinction between incremental innovation and radical innovation is important in understanding causes of change in the pace and scale of technical progress. …

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