This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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The annual World Youth Skills Day aims to celebrate the importance of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and equipping young people with the skills they need for the future. This year’s event takes place under very different circumstances, with TVET being uniquely impacted not only by the seismic disruption." to its delivery but also the significant anticipated changes to the labour market and the economy.
Many providers of TVET have responded rapidly through the provision of online learning courses that have really helped to keep students engaged. However, they can’t entirely replicate in-person training and their effectiveness depends on the course itself, given that many practical aspects cannot be delivered due the lack of access to physical materials, equipment, tools and machinery.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been an upward trend in the number of young people Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEET), as shown in the ILO’s Global Employment Trends for Youth 2020: Technology and the future of jobs report. As the UN says, “Rising youth unemployment is one of the most significant problems facing economies and societies in today’s world, for developed and developing countries alike".
Perhaps most worrying is that those aged 15-24 were three times more likely than adults to be unemployed – globally one in five young people are NEET and three out of four of young NEETs are women.
Read the OECD Policy Brief VET in a time of crisis: Building foundations for resilient vocational education and training systems and more on key policy responses
It is widely predicted that one of the effects of COVID-19 will be that TVET will have much great prominence and importance in educational provision. A number of governments have already made substantial commitments and pledged much greater levels of investment than they have previously. And TVET jobs are now much more visible in the media, with a number being seen on daily basis in the front-line response tackling the pandemic. This in turn has led to an increase in job applications in certain sectors such as health.
Against this backdrop, what more can we do to support young people, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds? How can we help them navigate through such uncertain times, make the most of their skills and talents and ensure they are able to make informed career choices?
Interactions with the world of work
It is now widely accepted that interactions with the world of work help to broaden young people’s horizons, raises their aspirations and challenge stereotyping. Activities such as work placements, work experience, job shadowing and career insight talks help increase their motivation to learn and be informed about the full range of jobs as well as the career routes into them. They also help reduce the mismatch between young people’s career aspirations and the reality of the labour market.
Over the last decade, strong and consistent evidence has indicated that teenagers who participate in activities with employers whilst in school and college on average do better as young adults in the world of work. The studies also show that school-age encounters with people in work are commonly linked with reduced risks of becoming NEET and with better earnings. In the United Kingdom, our research report It’s Who You Meet: Why Employer Contacts at School Make a Difference to the Employment Prospects of Young Adults showed that 26.1% of young people who could recall no contact with employers whilst at school went on to become NEET. This reduced significantly to 4.3% for those who had taken part in "four or more" activities involving employers. Further analysis showed that, even after controlling for characteristics such as low attainment and early school leaving, the relationship with NEET outcomes was still strong.
However nearly all the interactions young people traditionally had with the world of work, such as work experience and placements, have been disrupted by COVID-19. So, what can be done? The last three months have seen a myriad of virtual learning materials being developed, lots of innovation and creativity and some wonderful examples of harnessing the power of technology to enhance education.
In assessing which of these might have the greatest the impact, it might be worth considering three of the key principles that underpin how our charity defines a meaningful encounter with the world of work:
1) Authenticity. Authentic encounters are ones that ring true for a young person, providing insights that are hard to dismiss. More than that, the more authentic the insight into the working world, the more reliable that insight can be expected to be. Consequently, the chance for young people to interact with people from the world of work – to be able to ask them questions about the reality of the workplace – is vitally important. Online provision, which essentially comprises of a series of pre-recorded videos, is unlikely to achieve this, although they do play an important role. For authenticity, interactivity is key.
2) More is more. The evidence tells us that as well as being authentic, encounters with employers should be numerous if they are going to be as meaningful as possible. Young people need to hear from a wide range of workers: those from different social, economic and ethnic backgrounds; people working in different sectors, from app designers to zoologists; and at every level, from apprentices to CEOs who have taken a variety of career routes. The more a young person engages with the working world, the more likely it is that they will learn something new and useful about the labour market.
3) Start young. As well as being numerous, to maximise the positive results of employer encounters they should begin when students are young, deliberately challenging the assumptions and expectations that begin in early childhood.
From recovery to resilience in the wake of COVID-19 by Stefano Scarpetta, Director of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD
Such interactions with the world of work need to form part of an overarching careers strategy with high-quality, up-to-date labour market information and access to independent, impartial careers advice and guidance.
In the United Kingdom, via the Inspiring the Future online match-making portal, we have been working closely with the teaching profession and have developed interactive, virtual ways to connect schools with the world of work. As a result, schools can now access a much wider range of volunteers than before – people from different backgrounds, using different skills, from different sectors, doing different jobs and at range of seniority. It has enabled young people aged 7-18 to interact with them and ask questions about the subjects they studied and how they are using the skills they learnt in the workplace. The feedback from teachers is that this is really helping to motivate and engage students and excite them about education and learning.
Technology allows us to revolutionise how young people engage with the world of world. All young people – whatever their background or circumstances – should get the chance to meet a diverse range of role models from the world of work to inspire them and help them make the right choices about skills and careers. Because as Marian Wright Edlemen, President Emerita of the Children's Defense Fund in the United States, says: "You can’t be what you can’t see".
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