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The world of work is rapidly evolving, but what does this entail for the entrance into the workforce of today’s students and graduates?
Recognising Existing Challenges
For Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director of Education and Skills, a starting point to examining the school- to-work transition is to acknowledge that things are tough for young people.
As revealed by recent Qualtrics research conducted amongst 5,000 19-24 year-olds in Australia, Canada, France, Japan, the UK, and the US in the context of discussions in the OECD Forum Engagement Group on the Future of Work & Skills, only 36% of young people feel very or extremely prepared by their education for the job market despite having higher levels of education than previous generations. And while the COVID-19 pandemic may not have harmed young people’s job prospects as much as previously feared, the fact remains that in some OECD countries, young people are four times more likely to be unemployed than older workers. The Qualtrics survey also found that almost a fifth of young people surveyed are looking for employment, and that underemployment (i.e., young people working part-time and wanting to work full-time, or working in a temporary position but wanting to work in a permanent position) affects nearly a third of young people in the workforce.
Meanwhile, megatrends such as digitalisation and the green transition are rapidly transforming both labour market demands, and the skills needed to succeed.
In recognition of these challenges, the OECD Forum Virtual Event on the School-to-Work Transition sought to explore how to best support young people in this important phase of their lives.
Watch the replay of the event here
According to Sydney Heimbrock, Chief Industry Advisor for Government, Qualtrics, optimism and confidence are critical for the ability to navigate this transition. The Qualtrics survey shows that this sense of confidence varies along the continuum of the transition experience. Students feel like they are going to perform relatively well on the job, but do not feel well prepared to successfully compete in the process of getting that first entry onto the labour market. In contrast, survey respondents whose programmes offered apprenticeship experiences were significantly more confident that they were prepared to enter the job market and that confidence stretched across the entire transition experience.
Closing the Gap between Education and Employment
Mary Nega, CEO of Global Voices, an independent, youth-led, not-for-profit organisation which aims to equip young Australians with practical experience in diplomacy, agreed that effectively aligning pre-existing skills with employers’ needs is a key difficulty for young people. And while noting that higher education institutions are doing a fair amount to match students with employment options, she emphasized there is still a sentiment amongst young people that more is to be done.
Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director of Education and Skills, shared this assessment: OECD work also highlights that, by closing the gap between education and employment, education systems and employers have substantial opportunity to better prepare young people for future jobs– and to equip them with skills needed throughout their working lives.
Yet, this gap often remains substantial, with Mark Maloney, Vice Dean of Sciences Po’s School of International Affairs (PSIA), remarking that 85% of Sciences Po students choose to have their third of four semesters doing internships, there can be little doubt that young people themselves are keen to gain access to not only the theory, but also the practical experience they will need for their future careers.
Check out also the dedicated School-to-Work Transition Room for more great perspectives on the School-to-Work Transition
Harnessing the benefits of work-based experience
According to Andreas Schleicher, work experience while studying is the driver of increased employment prospects and education programmes that do not have that work-based component are far less successful than those that provide apprenticeship components, traineeships or work experience. In his words, “it’s really the experience at the workplace that is driving increased employment prospects.”
Why is work-based experience seemingly so important to students’ prospects?
According to panellists, it largely comes down to skills. Rather than solely enabling the transmission of formal knowledge, education institutions should aim to understand the real drivers of job preparedness, argued Qualtrics’ Sydney Heimbrock, who mentioned that governments must be investing resources toward education, apprenticeships and training programmes that have the most impact. Andreas Schleicher concurred by noting that workplace visits and opportunities for job shadowing are low cost and highly effective means to smooth over the School-to-Work transition.
Skills for All, but which Ones?
A poll of the audience revealed that participants also felt that the most important skills were transversal skills typically acquired in workplace settings, such as communications and teamwork.
Mark Maloney remarked that education institutions themselves are now increasingly moving to teaching that involves more collaborative work and assessments in order to better prepare students to enter workplace settings.
Andreas Schleicher agreed that traditional education is too often about the transmission of formal knowledge, while it has become essential to also focus on navigating ambiguity, managing complexity, and living and working with people from different backgrounds. He also emphasised the importance of discussing career ambitions, career alignment, and providing guidance to help students find out what their talents are. Training students for job applications and interviews can indeed have a significant impact on their future careers, in particular for children from disadvantaged families that have fewer opportunities to acquire such skills outside of school. Likewise, Mary Nega pointed to the additional barriers to employment faced by disadvantaged communities. Ensuring that children and young people from these communities are exposed to the many possibilities that may be open to them, beyond the experience of their parents or direct communities, is essential.
For the workers of the future to thrive, it will be critical to teach them how to learn – and ensure they develop a liking for it.
In the words of Abhijit Bhaduri, Microsoft’s General Manager for Learning and Development, future potential is something that is to be nurtured. When hiring, his company therefore gives significant importance to candidates’ ability to learn from different situations, and from what they haven’t been taught before, such as the ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds, following different kinds of methodologies. Employees also need to be self-driven, able to take decisions unsupervised, and to bounce back when faced with difficulties.
The need to place greater attention to social skills does not, however, mean that we should forget about STEM and cognitive skills. As Andreas Schleicher emphasised, the question is more about how we integrate the development of cognitive skills with social and emotional skills, rather than filling up students with content knowledge. For the workers of the future to thrive, it will be critical to teach them how to learn – and ensure they develop a liking for it.
Moving Away from Front-Loading Learning
According to Andreas Schleicher, education, by its very nature, will always lag behind the evolution of work. To be better prepared for the fast evolution of the skills needed in the workplace, we must therefore move away from front-loaded learning and embrace continuous reskilling and upskilling, rather than accumulating formal qualifications early in life and hoping that's going to be sufficient for a life-time.
We must move away from front-loaded learning to continuous reskilling and upskilling, rather than accumulating formal qualifications early in life, and hoping that's going to be sufficient for a life-time.
A lot of young people are demotivated by the traditional type of educational opportunities that are provided, explained the OECD Director of Education and Skills, who highlighted the need to offer different ways to study, as well as the importance of better acknowledging learning through more flexible credentialing systems. Current OECD data indicate that people are often not interested in reskilling and upskilling due to the perception that increased investment in upskilling and reskilling will not get recognised or rewarded. Addressing this recognition gap will be critical to foster societies of life-long learners well-equipped to thrive in the new world of work.
Towards a Human Centric Approach to Developing New Policies for the School-to-Work Transition
Employers have an important role to play too. Abhijit Bhaduri regretted that most of them do not yet sufficiently invest in their employees’ learning agenda, with Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index on the ways we work showing that 76% of employees say they would stay longer at a company if they could benefit from learning and development support. Likewise, Andreas Schleicher underscored that employers are not just consumers of skills but have an essential role in the skills development system. And as Mary Nega stressed, this will also entail improving remuneration conditions for internships and apprenticeships to ensure such opportunities remain accessible to students from more disadvantaged backgrounds as well. Such investment in the workforce is even more warranted as employers do stand to benefit too.
Against this backdrop, Sydney Heimbrock pleaded for a more overarching and holistic approach to policy developed by governments, also taking into account the role played by factors such as access to affordable housing, and transportation in shaping young people’s access to learning and employment opportunities. Abhijit Bhaduri emphasized the potential that remote works provides to address such difficulties, and indicated that, according to surveys conducted by Microsoft, the flexibility to work remotely and overcome such barriers is essential for Millennials and Gen Z.
Recent technological advances have certainly underscored how fast the world of work is changing, and its significant implications for both current and future members of the workforce. But they can also serve as powerful means to empower workers and advance shared priorities. By fostering the exchange of experiences and good practices between stakeholders, the OECD will continue to help our education systems and labour markets pass the critical test that the School-to-Work Transition ultimately remains.
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From my perspective, the typical school- to-work transition does not appear to have changed in a meaningful or substantive way since I entered the workforce more than three decades ago. And yet, so much has changed in the work environment.
That said, I'm encouraged by the recent advances in artificial intelligence, and the potential for students across the globe to enhance or augment their learning with the application of this emerging technology.