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What teenagers think about their futures in work and what actually happens when they go into employment

Anthony Mann, Senior Policy Analyst, OECD
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Thinking about the Future: The links between what teenagers think about their futures in work and what actually happens when they go into employment 

At the end of last year, the OECD published Career Ready? How schools can better prepare young people for working life in the era of COVID-19

That was a review of research studies that makes use of national longitudinal surveys to identify career-related aspects of teenage lives that can be connected with better adult employment outcomes. 

Longitudinal studies, like the British Cohort Study or the Millenium Cohort Study in the UK, are especially helpful to researchers.

They follow thousands of children into adulthood, collecting enormous amounts of information about their young lives, including lots of the detail that typically influence employment outcomes like qualifications and academic achievement, social background and personal characteristics and geographic location.

Statisticians can then control for these factors and then look for other characteristics associated with better outcomes than would normally be expected. It’s the law of averages, but it means something and is used extensively in medical research.

For career guidance, national longitudinal datasets are a potential treasure trove of data on what makes a difference to young people in job market in the years after they’ve left education.

Did the different interventions and support measures really work?

In the initial review of research, we identified nine indicators of better outcomes which could be found in studies typically from three countries (most existing research uses data from Australia, the UK or the US). 

We clustered the indicators into three areas:

1. Thinking about the future

  • Career certainty or vision: ability to name a job expected at age 30
  • Career ambition: interest in progressing to higher education and professional/managerial employment
  • Career alignment: matching of occupational and educational expectations

2. Exploring the future

  • Career conversations: speaking to an adult, especially a teacher, about a career of interest
  • Occupational preparation: participation in short occupationally-specific courses within general programmes of education
  • School-mediated work exploration/career guidance: participation in career development activities like career talks

3. Experiencing the future

  • Part-time employment: participation in paid part-time or seasonal work
  • Internships: short placements in workplaces
  • Volunteering: participation in community-based volunteering

Thinking about the future

In a new study published this month, we look narrowly at the first set of indicators: Thinking about the future.

We look at new data from from three countries (Australia, Denmark and Switzerland) and we test for relationships between better employment outcomes at age 25 (in terms of earnings, NEET status and job satisfaction) and teenage attitudes at age 15 about their future working lives. 

What we find is that when we combine the results from the existing literature with the new analysis that:

  • 12 out of 14 studies of different surveys from five countries (including the UK), into career certainty find evidence of long-term employment benefits linked teenage ability to name an expected occupation in adulthood
  • 13 out of 14 studies from four countries (including the UK), into career ambition also find a relationship – greater ambition in terms of education and employment plans is also seen to have a positive impact (even after controlling for academic achievement)
  • 5 out of 6 studies from three countries (including the UK), into career alignment are also linked with better outcomes – students planning on gaining the education typically needed for entry into the profession to which they aspire are found, on average, to do better in adult employment

In addition, we found evidence in two other areas of teenage lives:

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  • 7 out of 8 studies from four countries (including the UK) into instrumental motivation show links with better outcomes.  This is where a student signals an ability to draw a connection between their education and later employment.  For example, agreeing or disagreeing with statements like “School will help me get a good job” or “School is a waste of time.”
  • 2 out of 3 studies from three countries (not including the UK) into teenage career concentration showed evidence of benefits later on.  Here, we take the career ambition of teenagers and see how popular it is.  Typically, around half of teenage boys and girls say that they expect to work in one of the ten jobs that are most popular among their classmates. We hypothesise that at least some of students saying that they will be a doctor, teacher, lawyer, engineer etc have given less thought to their career plans than students who name one of hundreds of other possible occupations. 

This is a summary of work in progress. In September, we will publish more new analysis of national longitudinal surveys from eight countries, including the UK.

Early signs though are that some similar results are coming through.

Why thinking about the future makes a difference?

The indicators themselves are glimpses into the complex lives of young people in different countries and at different times.  We don’t always find that all students benefit in the same ways, but a clear pattern is emerging.  What young people think about their futures in work can be related to better outcomes – and schools should be checking in on their students and making use of the tools that they can use to enhance student career thinking. 

Where teenagers have an ambitious and personal vision for themselves in the workplace, understand what they need to do to achieve their plans and can see the links between their ambitions and their day-to-day lives in schools, we can see them as better placed to demonstrate a sense of agency and direction through their education.

We would not expect their career thinking to remain fixed, but to be a process of ongoing exploration and reflection and that seems to be the most important aspect.

Young people who are thinking actively and critically about their futures are proving to be better placed to visualise and plan their long transition from education into work than their peers who are less engaged.

Enhancing career thinking

The paper also includes evidence and examples of practice related to activities that can help enhance the career thinking of students.  For example, we see that students who engage in certain career development activities tend to be less likely to be misaligned in their career thinking or less uncertain about their career ambitions.

For schools, activities such as career conversations with students, the use of reflective questionnaires, encouraging students to research potential occupations and to engage with people in work, are means by which students can be encouraged to first articulate and then enhance their career thinking through discussion and exploratory activities.

One issue of particular concern that emerges from the data is that it is often young people who are the lowest achievers and from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who demonstrate the greatest levels of need.

For example, in the UK we see that whereas 45% of 15 year-olds who achieved the lowest scores on the 2018 OECD PISA study underestimate the education needed to achieve their career ambitions, this applies to only 12% of their highest performing peers (see our 2020 publication Dream Jobs? for more details).

As these students are more likely to leave education early, it is especially important that they are well supported by their schools in developing their understanding of the labour market and how it is likely to relate to their work in school.   The data we looked at covered periods of higher youth unemployment, so students could expect better outcomes from the identified indicators even in more difficult economic times. 

Anthony Mann, Senior Policy Analyst, OECD

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