This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—discuss and develop policy solutions now and for the future.
Around the world, even in times of high youth unemployment, many employers struggle to find motivated young people with the skills and qualifications they need. And yet, young people today are embarking on their adult lives with more years of education and higher qualifications than ever before. In other words, young people are not converting their higher educational achievement and career ambition into better jobs. Many struggle, especially in times of economic difficulty, to find any employment at all.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that half of 500 hiring managers surveyed in 2020 agreed that candidates lacking the skills to fill jobs was a problem.
For young people, early experiences of unemployment can be profoundly damaging. As well as material deprivation, they can expect both their long-term employment prospects and mental health to suffer. For many it will be a rude awakening. As well as being the most qualified generation of education-leavers in history, young people today are also the most ambitious for their futures in work.
For employers however, a different problem emerges. They struggle to find the young talent they need to grow their enterprises and the concern is widespread. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that half of 500 hiring managers surveyed in 2020 agreed that candidates lacking the skills to fill jobs was a problem.
Every three years, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study gathers substantial information about how young people think about their futures. The results provide important evidence that education systems are frequently failing to prepare young people well for their working careers.
The PISA 2018 study provides some unsettling insights into the career thinking of students aged 15. On average across the OECD, in 2018:
- One student in four was unsure about the kind of employment they expected to have in adulthood
- Two students in five with a job expectation anticipated working in an occupation at high risk of automation or digitalisation
- Half of students expected to work in one of just ten most popular job choices in their country
- Three students in five with a job expectation anticipated working in one small part of the labour market—as professionals—and fewer than one in ten in skilled or semi-skilled employment
- One student in five expects to become a professional or pursue a managerial career, but does not expect to pursue the level of education typically required to access such occupations
The bad news is that in longitudinal analyses from multiple countries, such widespread uncertainty and confusion about potential futures in the labour market are associated with poorer outcomes in work than would otherwise be expected. Where students at age 15 exhibit such career thinking, by the age of 25 they are more likely to be out of work, to earn less and be less satisfied with their jobs and careers than comparable peers.
Schools can be at their most effective only if they work with employers and people in work.
The good news is that schools can help students to better visualise and plan their futures. Longitudinal analysis highlight a range of career-related activities and experiences that can commonly be expected to help teenagers to do better in employment as young adults. Following tens of thousands of students and controlling statistically for the factors that influence employment outcomes (academic achievement, gender, social background etc.), new studies show that teenagers who actively explore and experience the world of work while still in school can expect to do better later on when they compete for available work. The size of impacts is often considerable: wage premiums of 5%-10% are commonplace. Students who explore and experience potential futures in work can also be expected to demonstrate more mature career thinking.
However, it is not just the responsibility of schools to prepare students for the working world. Schools can be at their most effective only if they work with employers and people in work. Where collaboration is strong, everyone wins: students, employers and society as a whole.
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Employers: schools need you!
The results of longitudinal analyses provide strong evidence that activities and experiences that can only be delivered by employers are especially effective in better preparing young people for their futures in work. Students who participate in career talks with guest speakers, job fairs, workplace visits and job shadowing for example, typically can expect better later employment outcomes than comparable peers who did not receive the intervention. Students can also be expected to gain from first-hand experiences of workplaces, too: short work placements, part-time working and volunteering in the community.
What employers offer is something that schools can never provide as well without their collaboration: authentic insights into the breadth of the modern working world.
Employers and people in work can provide information and enable experiences that cannot be easily replicated in schools. Studies show that such interventions feel more trustworthy and relevant to students. Where schools connect students with multiple employers, the engagement can also be relied upon to broaden the interests and expectations of young people.
Effective career guidance gives students confidence about their career choices, and employers confidence that a young person will succeed in work.
Consequently, effective schools turn to employer engagement to enrich career guidance, providing students interventions that will allow them to explore and confirm interests, developing the experience, social contacts and personal confidence that make a difference later on in the labour market. When begun at a young age and nurtured by schools within a culture of continual critical exploration, employer engagement will help spark and mature the career thinking of students, giving them maximum time to make informed decisions about how they will invest their precious time in their education.
Effective systems of employer engagement will ensure that employers of all sizes and sectors will find it easy to connect with schools. For employers, the challenge is to be accessible and approachable, offering authentic and diverse insights into their workplaces. Employers need to signal effectively to young people about what the labour market has to offer, today and in the future. And they can expect to gain much from their collaboration. Evidence of lower unemployment rates, higher wages and greater job satisfaction all speak to a better matching of new recruits with the demands of different working environments. Effective career guidance gives students confidence about their career choices, and employers confidence that a young person will succeed in work.
Unfortunately, PISA 2018 tells us that too few students are encountering employers within programmes of career guidance. By the age of 15, on average only 18% of students across participating OECD countries can say that they have i) taken part in job fair ii) attended a workplace visit or job shadowed and iii) spoken with a career guidance advisor. In Belgium, Hungary, Ireland and Spain fewer than one in ten students have such experiences.
Combined participation in career development activities, PISA 2018
Percentage of students in participating OECD countries taking part in three career development activities (job fair + workplace visit/job shadowing + speaking with a career advisor)
Source: PISA 2018
As the world looks to move on from the COVID-19 pandemic, the OECD—alongside the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, European Commission, European Training Foundation, International Labor Organisation and UNESCO—calls on governments to put career guidance, enriched by employer engagement, at the heart of recovery plans.