Four principles that guide the best employer engagement in education

‘Four principles that guide the best employer engagement in education’ by Nick Chambers, CEO of Education and Employers, is included in the latest OECD report Dream Jobs: Teenagers’ Career Aspirations and the Future of Work. Launched at the 2020 World Economic Forum, this major report analyses PISA data stretching back two decades about how job aspirations in young people have changed (or not) since 2000.

”It was a generation ago when, as a newly qualified teacher of science and technology in a northern English secondary school, I saw for myself the positive difference employer engagement could have on my students. Using some connections I had with local employers, I persuaded a range of people to come into my classroom to talk about how the knowledge and skills my students were developing would be of value to them in the workplace. It was a light-bulb moment for many of those young people – showing them the relevance of what they were doing in the classroom, broadening their horizons, raising their aspirations, and highlighting the range of jobs and career routes open to them. Looking back, I firmly believe that for many it gave them motivation to pass an exam they would have otherwise failed. As a young teacher, it opened my eyes to the powerful impact such simple interventions could have and how lucky I was to have within my network people who could provide the informed insight that my students needed.

In the years since then, interest in connecting schools more closely with the working world has grown steadily not just in the United Kingdom, but around the world and in relation to all forms of schooling, not just technical or vocational education. Employer
engagement in education includes such activities as careers-insights talks, subject talks, career/job fairs, enterprise competitions, mentoring, workplace visits, job shadowing and short work placements that enable young people to interact with private, public and third-sector employers and their employees. While easily recognisable, employer engagement has different meanings at the different stages of school life. At the primary level, it is often about challenging gender stereotyping about jobs and careers, and helping
to excite children about the subjects they are learning. At secondary school, employer engagement focuses more on broadening and sharpening career aspirations and developing knowledge, skills and experience to ease the transition into work.

Employer engagement is a resource that enriches career guidance and bolsters student academic motivation.

When children and young people engage with the working world they gain something that is not readily
accessed by any other means. For example, students are often more willing to believe what they hear from a professional who is actually working in a particular sector or doing a specific job, than from parents, teachers or career counsellors. It gives young people new, first-hand information that they feel they can trust. Its authenticity helps them make decisions and confidently develop the
skills and behaviours that employers want in their future workforce. Employer engagement has an essential and unique role to play in modern education, and the evidence is clear that young people have much to gain from it; but what is the best way to provide it? After all, it depends largely on the voluntary, unpaid contributions of multiple workplaces and employee volunteers interacting with enormous numbers of schools and teachers, commonly undertaking initiatives outside of the fixed curriculum.

What should national strategies seek to achieve and try to avoid? Four principles can be applied to test whether employer engagement is working for everyone.

The employer engagement that we strive for should be effective, efficient, equitable and evidenced. Effective employer engagement
ensures that the right young people engage with the right employer or employee volunteer through the right activity at the right time in their school life. Put another way, effective employer engagement ensures that the people closest to the learners get to decide how they become involved. No one is better placed than the teacher to know how different students might benefit from an encounter with
an employer. Effective interactions, moreover, must be unquestioningly authentic. It must never be forgotten that the added value that the volunteer employee offers is persuasive insights and experiences that are new and different to traditional schooling. For some students, low career aspirations are the challenge, for others it is that aspirations are, as this publication shows, unrealistic or misaligned with educational plans. All learners can benefit from broadening their understanding of what the labour
market has to offer. It is one of the most interesting insights from research that where young people themselves state that their engagement with employers was “very useful”, they turn out to be right: they go on to do better as young adults in the labour market.

Many students will gain from first-hand experience with mentors or through placements in the workplace. Working with adults who are not parents or teachers gives students the opportunity to develop, in authentic environments, the communication and team-working skills that underscore what it means to be personally effective in distinctive workplaces. The truer the representation of actual working life and the closer more intensive activities speak to the ambitions of young people, the more effective they are likely to be.
Teachers are perfectly placed to judge whether children and young people are learning something new and different from their interactions with the world of work. They should be the customers who drive any delivery system. This means that classroom and subject teachers, as well as career guidance professionals, should determine with whom their  learners should interact. Of course
teachers, like young people, “don’t know what they don’t know”, and effective systems will put mechanisms in place to amplify occupational areas that are failing to signal well to young people. There is an advantage, consequently, in delivering employer
engagement through systems based around national campaigns that can target different types of employment, like small businesses and cutting-edge start-ups that might not be well known as well as areas where there are significant shortages of skills.

The importance of volume and variety in young people’s encounters with the working world drives the need for efficiency in delivery, a
second principle essential to the best employer engagement. While some employer engagement activities, such as mentoring, might require modest training or safeguarding checks, and others, like work placements, may demand an assessment of health and
safety risks, the costs of employer engagement is overwhelmingly related to finding the right people and workplaces that are open to working with schools. It is essential to know what employers are willing to do, and when and where they are willing to do it. Efficient systems will work through existing networks of businesses, trade unions and professional associations,

Four principles that guide the best employer engagement in education

OECD 43 based on the field of work and location, to raise awareness of the opportunities to engage. As such, national online portals serve a valuable purpose in enabling low-cost campaigns that can drive interest to a single website. If campaigns are overseen by governance structures that include representatives of both teaching and employer/employee communities, there can be greater confidence that initiatives are needed and well targeted, and will take full advantage of existing networks to secure participation from both sides. Efficient systems, moreover, will connect employee volunteers with teachers in schools and colleges either through corporate gatekeepers or directly as suits individual needs. As well as being effective and efficient, employer engagement in education must be equitable if it is to fully realise its potential for social transformation. Indeed, poorly managed employer engagement has a high risk of increasing inequalities – as schools in more affluent areas draw on richer parental and local economic resources to support learners. Equitable employer engagement recognises that young people vary in the extent to which they have easy access to, and a comfortable understanding of, the working world. As the OECD has shown, the career expectations of teenagers are heavily shaped by their gender, social class, immigrant background and geographic location. The children of parents who are managers, for example, are likely to have a much better understanding of hiring processes than peers from different backgrounds. It is well known too that gender stereotyping often distorts how children and young people think about future employment, serving to channel young women towards lower-paying employment.

Employer engagement is a means of challenging such drivers of inequality as it presents an opportunity to strategically enhance the social capital of young people who lack relevant family contacts. National policy can ensure that specific schools in specific areas have easy access to employers well placed to inspire and inform young people’s career thinking. More than that, equitable systems can ensure fair access to the most desirable workplace visits and experiences, even for learners in remote areas. National campaigns can and should explicitly address the needs of young people who are at the greatest disadvantage. Finally, it should go without saying that high-quality employer engagement is evidenced. Longitudinal data-sets now offer important insights into the impact of different employer engagement approaches. Further opportunity exists to introduce greater experimentation into the delivery of employer engagement. School systems and employers can develop a deeper understanding of what works best for whom under which circumstances. It is time to go beyond seeing employer engagement as a “nice-to-have” bonus and approach it with the same critical enquiry as other aspects of education. Every young person, wherever they live, whatever their parents’ or carers’ circumstances, wherever the school they go to, should have the opportunity to hear about jobs and the world of work first-hand, from the people doing those jobs – and this should start in primary education.

Historically, schools have been tasked with delivering employer engagement for their students, at times helped by specialist brokers often operating on a local or sub-regional basis. These are models with many strengths, but they can run the risk of undermining the principles of good practice articulated here. Technological advance allows countries to mitigate such dangers by reducing the transaction costs of having someone in a workplace with desirable knowledge to share coming to a school to interact with a young person. Ultimately, for employer engagement to happen, it needs to be made easy for everyone involved. The single biggest reason why any employer or employee volunteers to work with a school is because someone asked them to. As concerns rise over skills mismatch, automation and youth unemployment, the need for the question to be asked becomes ever more pressing.  Back in the 1990s, when I was a young teacher, good fortune gave me access to the people I needed to enrich students’ schooling through career insight talks and work experience. It is an urgent necessity to go beyond such happenstance. Across the world, it is time for a strategic, critical, technologically driven approach. Our vision should be of a world where employer engagement is an everyday element of schooling, from the first years of primary school to the last days of upper secondary. It is a vision that is within the grasp of this generation to achieve”.

Nick Chambers, CEO of Education and Employers