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.
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As anticipation of the COVID-19 vaccine brings hope to the world, concern turns to the long-term economic consequences of the pandemic — and the prospects of young people now leaving education. In any recession, we can expect young people to suffer disproportionately. After all, the first thing that employers do in response to falling demand is to stop hiring. As unemployment rises, young people, already disadvantaged by their comparative lack of knowledge, contacts and experience of work, now face fiercer competition from older workers. In the COVID recession, falling demand is notably uneven. In a turbulent labour market, demand for workers in some sectors has risen sharply; in others it has fallen away completely. It is unsurprising that a recent global survey by the OECD and WorldSkills showed that up to a third of young people said that the pandemic had prompted them to change their career plans.
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For young people in many countries, the challenge is compounded by the fact that their understanding of the labour market is overly narrow, confused and distorted by social background. OECD PISA data tells us that on average half of 15 year-olds expect to work in one of just ten jobs; that 20% do not plan on acquiring sufficient education to achieve their career ambitions; and that gender, socio-economic status and migrant background are more strongly linked to job goals than academic achievement. This is evidence of weak labour market signalling — and something to worry about. With every year that passes, young people are staying in education longer. They need to make more decisions than ever before, and those decisions were already getting harder even before the pandemic as automation changes the demand for skills.
For governments and schools, it is the role of career guidance to ensure that young people go through education and training and into the labour market with understanding and confidence. However, PISA 2018 data tells us that on average only half of teenagers have spoken with a guidance professional in school by the age of 15, and fewer than 40% have attended a job fair.
New work by the OECD focuses on how analysis of big data can lead to young people receiving better support by identifying indicators of career readiness. Published this week, a new working paper Career Ready? How schools can better prepare young people for working life in the era of COVID-19 sets out the ways in which teenage career-related attitudes and experiences are linked to better employment outcomes in adulthood. The paper looks specifically at analyses of data from national longitudinal databases in the international academic literature. By following individuals from childhood to adulthood, the review shows that how school students think, explore and experience their potential futures in work are related to better earnings or employment levels than would be expected.
For example, what a teenager thinks about their potential working future matters. In general, studies show that students who cannot name a career expectation do worse than would be expected as working adults, when compared to someone with similar academic qualifications and social background. Across the OECD, such teenage uncertainty has risen by 81% since 2000 to one quarter of all students in 2018.
Note. Respondents to the PISA survey are classified as uncertain when they are unable or unable to answer the question, “What kind of job do you expect to have when you are about 30 years old?” Cross-checking shows that uncertain youth typically write in answers to other survey questions.
The research also tells us that children with low or confused ambitions can also expect to do worse in the search for work than similarly performing peers. Equally, we see links between better than expected adult employment outcomes and teenage exploration of the labour market through career conversations and participation in career development activities. Workplace experience also counts: teenagers who work part-time, volunteer or undertake internships take something of value into the labour market.
Drawing on the work of Indian sociologist, Arjan Apparadui, young people who have the opportunity to think about, explore and experience the world of work develop a greater capacity to aspire. The overwhelming majority of young people have high aspirations for themselves, but they vary considerably in terms of self-knowledge, access to practical information and useful experiences. The idea of the capacity to aspire helps us picture the need for social networks to surround and support young people, as they get to know themselves and begin to picture relationships between classroom activities and adult lives. A consistent finding within the new analysis is that young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are in need of the greatest support. The good news is that studies show that schools can and do actively intervene to address disadvantage and help students to succeed in the labour market.
The publication of Career Ready? marks the launch of a new 12-month OECD project that will undertake new analysis of longitudinal data to confirm universal indicators of teenage career readiness. Our goal is create tools of value to schools and education systems seeking to provide young people with the support they need to navigate their way through a hostile jobs market. To stay in touch with the work, please email me at Anthony.Mann@oecd.org.
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