Published today: What the OECD found when they asked half a million 15-year olds “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Launched today at the 5th International Conference on Employer Engagement in Education and Training is a new report from the OECD – “Career guidance and employer engagement”. The report was presented by Dr Anthony Mann, Head of VET and Adult Learning at the OECD, and former Director of Research at Education and Employers.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” this is precisely the questions that the OECD asked to half a million 15-year olds in PISA 2015. A new OECD research paper looks at the results and found that most 15-year-olds already have career plans: only around 15% of them have not decided what they want to do. But one in three cited one of just ten jobs, and these aspirations rarely reflect labour market demand. Choosing is hard. But how to broaden young people’s horizon, and make them consider alternatives?

This is where employers come in. Through career talks, and job visits, and more, young people can be introduced to some of the choices they will face in their learning and professional pathways. The theoretical arguments are very clear: direct contacts with people in work are a good complement to other types of school-based guidance services (such as filling in and discussing a questionnaire about preferences and interests). People in work have the capacity to provide young people with insights and experiences which is difficult for schools to replicate. These contacts have a distinct value, and are valued by students and teachers, and rewarded by the labour market. Employers too value the opportunity to promote careers within their organisation or sector.

Choosing is hard, but it is harder for some more than others. At age 15, PISA data shows that career expectations are patterned, by social and immigrant background and by gender. Disadvantaged students are significantly less likely to want to work as professionals than their more advantaged peers – even after statistical controls are put in place for academic abilities. That means that young person from a working class background can be expected to have lower career ambitions than a peer who does just as well academically, but happens to be from a middle class background.

But employers’ engagement in career guidance can help address some negative stereotypes about different paths. Students and their parents often have few opportunities to observe and experience different jobs, and this is often the case in the more technical, technological and scientific fields. In practice, it can be challenging, and participation can be limited. In the PISA study, only 27% of students reported that they had participated in an internship programme and about 37% had shadowed a worker at his or her job.

Musset, P. and L. Mýtna Kureková (2018), “Working it out: Career guidance and employer engagement”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 175, OECD Publishing, Paris,