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To get young people into work, we first need to understand how the workplace is changing

In 2015, one in five Australians aged between 16 and 24 spent at least a year out of employment, education or training. Julian Smith/AAP

The release of the OECD report, Investing in Youth - Australia, highlights persistent struggles faced by many young people in Australia.

This analysis of youth policies related to education, training, social and employment has wide ranging implications, which can be unpacked by considering three basic questions: Where are young people at? Where are young people going? And how will we know if they have got there?

Where are young people at?

The report is a reminder of the persistent problems facing certain young people who: leave school early, are female, live in remote areas (particularly Indigenous youth) and are migrants from non-English-speaking countries.

The report highlights that in 2015, one in five Australians aged between 16 and 24 spent at least a year out of employment, education or training.

At the extreme end, 11.8% of all 15 to 29 year olds, totalling around 580,000 young people, were not in employment, education or training (NEET).

This figure is more than 100,000 higher than in 2008. Nearly two-thirds of these young people were not even seeking work.

Where are young people going?

The OECD report rightly suggests continued examination of the educational and training pathways available to young people post school.

Importantly, the report suggests further establishing vocational education and training (VET) as an appealing educational pathway.

Again this is a long-term challenge, and one whose barriers are, in part, entrenched in seemingly widespread cultural norms about preferred avenues post school.

While systems that offer early streaming into non-university pathways, such as in Germany, are sometimes viewed with scepticism (and not without some justification), it is useful to remember that there is a social expectation or high valuation placed by many Australians towards one pathway: university.

Yet the evidence suggests a more nuanced picture.

In 2014, while around 16% of Australians aged 20-24 had a bachelor-level qualification or higher, a greater proportion of young people (29%) had lower and higher level VET qualifications.

But the provision side of training has been subject to criticism following the news that private providers have misled disadvantaged students about fees, while sometimes offering inappropriate training for long-term unemployed people with high needs.

More needs to be done not only to make VET more appealing, but to support what is an often fragmented sector lacking consistent long-term policy and resources.

A salient question here is how best to align education and training to the contemporary labour market.

In a labour market that not only pays for what young people know, but what they can do with what they know, the development of necessary skills, dispositions and competencies sometimes arises from places that some may find surprising.

Johanna Wyn, one of the researchers on a major longitudinal study of Australian youth, has suggested that “the graduates most likely to be in full-time work by the age of 27 are those who have done an arts degree”, probably because they can “think outside the box”.

How will we know if they have got there?

A deeper question concerns the degree to which these pathways should be directly tailored to meeting market needs.

The OECD report highlights the importance of aligning student-chosen qualifications with employer needs.

Surveys of business suggest that young people are underprepared for working life and lack foundational skills in literacy and numeracy, as well as skills such as communication and problem-solving.

A recent survey of 5,029 Australians aged 18 to 29 found that a majority (84%) believe students need more training to be work-ready.

But predicting what the labour force will look like, and therefore what is required by young people to navigate it, is difficult.

Look at how technology, for example, is transforming industry and working life.

One review published last year suggests that 60% of students are being trained in areas that will be radically affected by automation.

Several years ago, I facilitated a series of seminars engaging big employers of young people in Australia in which participants were asked to name what the nature of industry and workforce-readiness will look like in a generation. A significant proportion (like many of us) struggled to do so.

The fact is that working life is becoming more fluid, if not precarious.

Across the OECD, the majority of the jobs growth since the 1990s has been in roles that are temporary, part-time or self-employed.

The prospect of a career or even desirable, secure work is becoming more unattainable for many young people.

Another recommendation to come out of the OECD report was to

“ensure a more systematic and rigorous evaluation of Commonwealth-funded social, educational and employment programmes…”

Need for evidence-based approaches

At virtually every level of education, there is a push to provide more evidence-based approaches. And rightly so. The paucity of good evidence starts at the top.

A review published in 2015 by the OECD found that since 2008, only one in ten of education reforms carried out amongst its member countries has been analysed by governments for the impact they have on students in schools.

Some of the reasons why so few are evaluated for impact included the lengthy trajectories of reforms and complexity of measuring their educational outcomes.

The emphasis of the OECD on measuring impact is appropriate; but there is also a risk that with greater emphasis on evaluation and assessment tools such as standardised testing, evaluation of educators’ performance and impact, the task of collecting evidence maybe driving and dominating the daily business of educators to the detriment of their core purposes, which leads to the last point.

Education after work

An interesting thought experiment arises in relation to the future of work.

Given the rapid technological change mentioned above, the impact of automation has implications for most areas of work.

Some are speculating about the possibility that labour as a core feature of life may become obsolete.

As a purely hypothetical exercise, this raises an interesting question: what would the purpose of public education be in a world without work?

One answer strikes at the very heart of what education has arguably always been: that education (schooling in particular) is about

“the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians”.

This speaks of the moral purpose of education, something that continues to motivate and drive teachers throughout the world.

Benjamin Hunnicutt, an historian at the University of Iowa, suggests that, “We used to teach people to be free. Now we teach them to work”.

Education isn’t solely about preparing for work and economic imperatives, an idea which sometimes escapes thinking about how best to educate young people for life.

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