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Navigating the transition from school to work presents young generations with significant challenges in a world where information about opportunities is unequally distributed, and the skills necessary to thrive in the workplace are rapidly transforming. The school-to-work transition generally refers to the time window between being in full-time schooling and finding stable employment. An effective transition mainly relies on two elements: success in identifying the outcome and ease in achieving it. The first requires sufficient information on available opportunities, while the second requires appropriate skills.
An increasing number of students lack sufficient qualifications to thrive in labour markets at the end of the full cycle of compulsory education.
Access to information about available outcomes is unequal, and often connected to pre-existing inequalities. For those with highly educated parents, it is more immediate to understand how to thrive at university and where different university paths lead. By contrast, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds may struggle to identify all the available career development opportunities as they lack a wide array of role models in their network. Wrong choices after full-time schooling go hand-in-hand with widening inequalities. One’s first employment has long-term effects on future earnings and well-being: it can serve as a stepping-stone for a rewarding career or be a trap for youth.
Furthermore, education systems are lagging behind in the constantly evolving world of work. As firms accelerate the adoption of digital technologies, in the name of pandemic-proofing, and as the green transition becomes central, the skills required for successful employability shift towards services, IT, quality and impact. In this context, an increasing number of students lack sufficient qualifications to thrive in labour markets at the end of the full cycle of compulsory education.
In Italy, the intersection between these phenomena relate to worrying figures about young people “Not in Employment, Education, or Training” (NEETs), as one out of four Italians under 35 are NEET. Transitioning to a regular job upon completion of a full-time technical or vocational study cycle is estimated to be around two and a half years. On top of this, there are cases where the school-to-work transition never happens: individuals stay out of the labour force after leaving school.
After five years of activity, surviving a pandemic and touching base in 21 cities, Poliferie has learned some lessons from students participating in workshops and mentoring activities.
Poliferie is an Italian NGO that works to prepare teens at their best for the future of work. It targets students at risk of non-employment and non-training by promoting widespread access to information and the development of soft skills to adapt to changing labour markets. It does so through individual mentoring and in-school interactive workshops, aimed at fostering public speaking, teamwork and basic digital skills. After five years of activity, surviving a pandemic and touching base in 21 cities, Poliferie has learned some lessons from students participating in workshops and mentoring activities.
Poliferie predominantly operates in technical and vocational training high schools across the country. As gathered through surveys developed by the internal impact evaluation team, only 15.5% of targeted students have parents who completed a university degree. According to one of their professors, “Students strongly need career guidance programmes, they are unable to acknowledge their own potential. There is an information gap and students feel lonely in the choice of their future. It seems that in today’s school system every student is an island: disconnected from others and from the external world”.
More on the Forum Network: Averting a Failure-to-Launch: Skills intelligence for school-to-work transitions by Alison Lands, Director, Strategy, SkyHive Technologies
First, students perceive some level of mismatch between school curricula and what is required from them to succeed in the digital revolution. Even students who are fortunate to have career role models in their networks may receive guidance from a generation of workers who entered the job market under structurally different conditions, and so might struggle to grasp the earning potential represented by the so-called “new” digital professions. This is confirmed when we ask students for their impressions. Before the programme, four out of five students had neither written a CV nor had a job interview; only about a third felt confident in writing professional emails, delivering a presentation in public or working effectively on a team project.
Students without guiding figures in their networks may struggle to navigate the vast range of vocational training in post-secondary institutions, administered by a multitude of private and public providers.
Furthermore, two out of three students are afraid that their job search is going to be more difficult than their parents’. Among the cohorts surveyed last year, 40% of respondents believe that employability opportunities in Italy are below European standards.
By the end of the programme, students’ confidence about digital and soft skills shows a steady increase across the board in all cohorts, though their attitude towards the future does not become significantly brighter.
Second, students’ university trajectory is anchored to socio-economic status and parental education level. Highly educated households are over-represented in Italian universities: while they amount to 15% of total population, among graduates 31 out of 100 have at least one parent who completed a bachelor’s degree. The share increases to one half among post-graduate students who complete “one-cycle” degrees (architecture, medicine, law degrees). These fields of study also register the highest percentages of students who pursue degrees in the same area as their parents (on average, one out of three). This is indicative of the critical role played by the family unit in determining students’ further education decisions, as some youth benefit from a range of information and guidance in the university application process that others lack. In addition, students who enrol in university predominantly attended academic tracks (licei) in high school (75.4%); fewer than 20% of students attending technical or vocational secondary schools, which are the target of Poliferie, are considering continuing their education to earn a degree.
Students without guiding figures in their networks may struggle to navigate the vast range of vocational training in post-secondary institutions, administered by a multitude of private and public providers. If students who are more suited to vocational education and training enrol in universities, they face a higher risk of being disappointed in terms of grades and experience, which results in a higher likelihood of dropping out of their studies. If they instead enter the labour market directly, they miss out on a key part of training that could help them move up the career ladder. Overall, such information asymmetry diminishes their chances to secure an entry-level job with good progression prospects. Poliferie has found that 65% of students in their last year of high school had never heard of vocational tertiary education, and after discovering it in our workshop a sizeable number of them eventually pursued this path.
The future is bright so long as next generations are given the tools to navigate the school-to-work transition.
Ignoring all these challenges creates a dangerous mix for effective youth market inclusion. Poliferie’s experience is a bottom-up example of a cost-efficient, scalable solution to help close the gap between school and workplace. Certainly, it is not the only viable solution; country-wide plans such as Youth Guarantee helps NEETs find employment through intensive, collective support and hands-on work experience, together with financial aid to facilitate access to employment. Preventing the phenomenon is another strategy that can be implemented by relying on schools as gate-keepers from youth unemployment: reducing early school leaving exponentially decreases the share of NEETs.
Learning from these best practices, governments, employers, NGOs and education institutions ought to team up to bridge the gap between skills and information that young people face when full-time schooling comes to an end. The future is bright so long as next generations are given the tools to navigate the transition: awareness of one’s own potential, information about available opportunities, and mastery of soft skills for constantly changing labour markets. Rescuing youth from a prolonged school-to-work transition is central to facing the challenges posed by the future of work and building more equal societies.