Why Thailand Needs Career Academies

Thailand aspires to make a major economic shift in the next decade as outlined in its Thailand 4.0 plan. However, the Co-vid 19 pandemic and the shortage of highly skilled workers have proved to be serious obstacles to the government’s plans to raise incomes and improve the quality of life in Thailand. The combination of these obstacles to development plus a rising number of students dropping out of school, an aging population, a steady decline in school enrollment and university admissions, and increased competition from workers in other ASEAN countries are creating strong pressures to improve the preparation of the Thai workforce. At present, the education system is not producing a sufficient number of skilled workers to meet the needs of current employers, let alone new investors, and this situation could worsen unless action is taken. The current vocational system seems unable to adjust quickly enough to meet the changing demands of the labor market and as a consequence, many good-paying jobs are going unfilled. And many parents object to their children attending vocational schools as they have a bad reputation due to a lack of student discipline and poor teaching.  What can be done to solve this problem?

Part of the solution may lie in the creation of career academies in Thailand’s secondary schools.  Career Academies were first developed some 50 years ago in the United States of America with the aim of restructuring large high schools into small learning communities and creating better pathways from high school to further education and the workplace. They have been shown to be an effective intervention in the United States, reducing student drop-outs especially for at-risk groups and improving the employability of high school graduates. Since then, the Career Academy approach has been adopted by an estimated 8,000 high schools across the USA, and spread to other countries, including Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan. The popularity of Career Academies, along with their relevance to high school reform has been fueled by studies showing their positive impact on student outcomes, including MDRC’s random assignment evaluation of the model. This study tracked a sample of students for 12 years and found strong and sustained impacts on their labor market outcomes, most notably their earnings. These positive impacts occurred without any detrimental effects on education outcomes, such as graduation from high school or enrollment in postsecondary school.

Operating as small learning communities within schools and typically enrolling 30 to 60 students per grade, Career Academies are organized around potentially strong employment sectors such as health sciences, agriculture, computer technology, criminal justice, business and finance, and engineering. The Academies are often focused on local employment opportunities and are designed and operated in cooperation with local employers. Academy students take classes together, remain with the same group of teachers over time, follow a curriculum that includes rigorous academic courses as well as career-oriented courses, and participate in work-based learning activities.  The students earn the credits needed for high school graduation, gain work experience, and often earn technical certifications that are gateways to future employment. MDRC’s evaluation suggests that the internship experiences provided by the Academies play an important role in producing Career Academies’ positive impact on earnings.

What are the advantages of career academies over traditional vocational schools?  First, the curriculum of the Academies, including the work experience is designed with local  employers and is intended to meet their needs. As a consequence, the Academies earn the support of the employers which reduces the costs to the public sector and ensures that the students receive authentic preparation.  The Academies are able to take advantage of the knowledge, skills, and equipment of local employers.  Research shows this close relationship between the schools and the employers enhances student motivation and that they are more engaged and work harder than students enrolled in more conventional programs.  In addition to increasing student motivation, the academies are not expensive to create and their operating costs are lower than conventional vocational schools.  These lower costs and close relationship with employers give them the flexibility to adapt quickly to changes in the local job market.

A second advantage is that the students remain in their local secondary schools and earn the credits required to graduate.  This makes parents happy and enables the students to gain the qualifications needed to attend university should that be the path that they choose.  

Third, the Career Academies introduce students to an entire industry and multiple possible careers, not just a single job. In this way, the Academies not just only protect students’ interests in pursuing different career paths but often raise students’ aspirations and encourage students to prepare for university programs as well as serving those who want or need immediate employment.

Fourth, the research evidence shows participation in Career Academies reduces student drop-out rates.  Students are motivated to stay in school, and it increases the number who seek post-secondary education or training.  The Academies prepare students for options after graduation from secondary school; these include employment, vocational training, or higher education.

Fifth, the small learning communities build strong relationships among peers and with teachers that serve to increase student engagement and work effort. When a student encounters problems, they can expect support from friends and greater understanding and support from teachers than would be normal in a typical school.

With funding from Chevron Thailand Exploration and Production, the SEAMEO STEM Education Centre is in the process of piloting Career Academies in Thailand in the areas of health and wellness, information technology, smart agriculture, culinary arts, and teacher education which are all considered strategic employment sectors and aligned with  the national development strategy. In addition, preparation of young people to pursue careers in these areas has not been adequate. The Centre is working with multiple partners including universities, private companies, and government agencies  to develop different models of career academies which suit the Thai context. Currently, two models being piloted, embedded career academies and independent career academies.  Embedded career academies are programs located within, and managed by, secondary schools or vocational colleges. Independent career academies are free-standing programs which collaborate with secondary schools or vocational colleges but are not managed by those educational institutions.  The embedded model is the type of career academy found effective in the United States but it may not fit the Thai context.

Key characteristics of career academies have been adopted in both of the piloted programs. They include building partnerships with employers and educational institutes which provide relevant expertise in the career paths as well as learning resources and facilities. Moreover, linkages with employers and industry help provide learners with an access to adult mentorship and authentic learning experience leading to their aspiration to be succeed in the selected career.  More importantly, the curriculum is focused more on the application of practices which  enables students to acquire and practice the essential competencies that the industry values. Internships are provided with on-the-job training under supervision by established employers.  Upon the completion of the courses, students are required to take an examination for professional certification which will increase their opportunities for successful employment. Research is being conducted by university researchers to see if this approach is effective in Thailand.  Their  findings and recommendations will be provided to policy makers to inform decisions about the desirability of scale-up. 

The career academy is a new concept for Thailand. Based on its success in a number of other countries, it seems clear that engaging participation of the private sector strengthens student engagement and enhances teaching and learning, making it more relevant, meaningful, cost-effective. The responsibility of building a competent workforce should not rest solely with the public sector, instead everyone should take an active part in building our nation together. 

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