Across the world, governments are asking how to close the gap between the world of education and the world of employment. Now a new collection of papers has set out just how important employer interventions in education can be.
One of the new analyses shows that pupils who have more interaction with employers were less likely to be out of work, and were likely to earn more. Research into hundreds of personal statements written by independent school pupils applying to university in England has also shown that access to work experience can improve their chances of gaining sought after places.
Employer engagement may be a policy priority but it is not well researched. The research, published in a new collection which I helped to edit, marks the first attempt to do justice to the consequences of employer involvement in the learning and progression of young people.
New research by Christian Percy and Anthony Mann at the London-based education charity the Education and Employers Taskforce, has applied quantitative analysis to recent UK survey data of 19-24 year olds on their long-term job prospects.
They showed that those who experienced greater levels of contact with employers were “significantly less likely to be NEET [not in education, employment or training] … and more likely to be earning at a higher level”. It also shows they are more likely to be confident in the value of their current activities.
But there is no simple explanation for how this comes about. A review of the literature suggests that while employer engagement may help young people develop the soft skills they require in the workplace, this is only part of the story.
There is also evidence that contact with employers can provide social capital: providing relationships through which valuable information or practical assistance can be obtained. For example, in an analysis of the 2012 Employer Perspectives Survey for the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, David Massey, a senior manager there, shows that 22% of employers that offer work experience subsequently employed those who did placements after the work experience. Another 15% recruit youngsters after they complete their educational programmes.
There is also some evidence that mentoring by employers can affect motivation and thereby help young people overcome barriers that may affect socially disadvantaged young people.
Reinforcing social advantage
It is important to understand that while employer engagement can be a tool to support social justice, it can equally well be used as a means to reproduce social advantage.
Research led by Prue Huddleston at the University of Warwick shows how a sample of 20 high-performing English independent schools make extensive and intensive use of their alumni networks to inform career choices. They also furnish their students with professional work experience, which is then transmitted through personal statements into higher education admissions applications.
Through an analysis of hundreds of UCAS statements, Steven Jones at the University of Manchester, shows how applicants from independent schools were able to marshal prestigious work experience, which was strongly related to high-status degree programmes, to strengthen their candidature for sought after places.
While hardly a new phenomenon, the attention on how to better engage employers in the work of schools has grown significantly over the last decade. It is a policy which has won the recent strong endorsement from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in its key 2010 strategic review of vocational education, Learning for Jobs and from the influential Pathways to Prosperity team at Harvard University. In England, despite changes in rhetoric and shifting ministerial responsibilities, there is a continued call for improved coordination between business and education.
In some ways, it is extraordinary that so much employer engagement takes place, given how little is known about its impact. In 2009-10, work-related learning was an entitlement for 14-16 year olds in England and approximately 400,000 different English workplaces provided work placements to over half a million teenagers.
Policy statements suggest these employer interventions are intended to inform careers thinking, equip young people with the skills for work, enhance social mobility and motivate underperformers. However, the targeting of employer engagement has shifted with changes in government.
In 2011 the coalition government removed the entitlement (and the corresponding funding) for 14-16 year olds. But it has since made work-related learning a universal expectation within the curriculum for 16-19 year olds. There is no definite data at the moment on the impact of the system.
Asking more of employers
Yet it is interesting to contrast the concept of “employer engagement” with that of “neo-liberalism”. Both terms address contemporary political economy, drawing attention to the way that political and economic ideas feed off one another.
Both approaches share the assumption that the state alone is too weak to bring about some social and economic goals and that it must work with business interests and with markets to achieve collective goals, such as growth and social justice.
But the narrative of “employer engagement” does not make learners responsible for their own transition into employment. On the contrary, it makes employers “answerable” for failures of the labour market and for a lack of equity in access to employment and professional opportunities.
The case made by advocates of employer engagement is that business has both the capability and the interest to intervene to make good the “failures” which neither the market nor the public sector, on their own, can remedy.