Capability or Employability: Orientating VET Toward “Real Work”

  • Lesley Powell
  • Simon McGrathEmail author
Reference work entry


Interest in the work-readiness of the VET graduate and the economic contribution that they might make has been a concern for much of the past century. This has escalated with neoliberalism to an account of VET that has employability as its central and sole purpose. At the heart of the employability agenda is the individual's responsibility to achieve employability and, in contexts where unemployment benefits exist, to prove that they are trying to achieve employability as a prerequisite for accessing social benefits.

This chapter draws empirically from 30 interviews undertaken with young people living in urban townships in the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan in Port Elizabeth as part of the research program of the Research Chair: Youth Unemployment, Employability and Empowerment at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa. The research work was initially funded by the Education, Training, and Development Practices Sector Education and Training Authority (ETDP SETA).

Drawing on the capabilities approach, this chapter shows that the employability agenda, with its associated emphasis on income poverty, serves in reality to ignore the multiple capability deprivations that affect South African youth living in low socioeconomic status urban townships. In contradiction to policy narratives that posit employability as a solution to poverty and youth unemployment, the chapter highlights from the lived experiences of these graduates the ways in which the employability agenda functions as a form of structural violence that locks youth into a cycle of poverty and then reinforces this structural violence by persistently and stubbornly insisting that VET prepare learners for a formal labor market that simply has not and probably will never employ the majority of them. Of great concern is the ways in which the employability agenda potentially limits the capacity of VET to expand the agency and active engagement of these young people in informal sector livelihoods and in community development.

In light of the Sustainable Development Goals (UN 2015), which emphasized the expansion of VET systems in developing contexts, this chapter argues that the employability account (and particularly narrow versions thereof) is simply not fit for developing contexts where VET is necessarily targeted toward social equity, the reduction of gender disparities, community development, poverty alleviation, as well as to human capital development and economic growth.


Vocational education and training Employability Capability approach Youth unemployment 


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET)Nelson Mandela UniversityPort ElizabethSouth Africa
  2. 2.School of EducationUniversity of NottinghamNottinghamUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Lesley Powell
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of EducationNelson Mandela Metropolitan UniversityPort ElizabethSouth Africa

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