Changes in Social Capital and School-to-Work Transitions

An article by Rob Strathdee, Work, Employment and Society, 15(2) pp.311-326

In this article Strathdee focuses on the job seeking methods of a group of eleven poorly qualified male school leavers and their fathers, using semi-structured interviews to shed light on the value of social networks in school-to-work transitions in New Zealand. He takes as his theoretical background debates concerning the impact of social and economic change – including de-industrialisation, globalisation and a decline in the influence of the local – and a possible decline of social capital on school-to-work transitions.

Strathdee discusses the academic debates surrounding social capital and the theory that it is in decline. Green (1996) argues, for example, that egalitarian policy has undermined social capital because equality of opportunities demands that advantages accrued by individuals through social capital should be suppressed, whilst left wing theorists suggest that the decline can be attributed to the expansion of the free market. This decline in social networks may, it is suggested, account for some of the barriers school leavers experience in seeking employment. Through the research presented in this article, the author attempts to address the lack of empirical testing that has been made of these claims.

Research in the 1974 by Granovetter showed that access to jobs was often determined by social networks. The use of the ‘strong social ties’ of family members or close friends to find employment limits social mobility, as it only exposes individuals to opportunities at the same level as their immediate social group, whereas the ‘weak ties’ of networks associated with acquaintances can promote social mobility by exposing them to opportunities beyond their social group. The importance of social networks has been confirmed by many studies, but these say little about the quality of networks.

The younger participants in Strathdee’s study were selected on the basis of their exam performance: each gaining fewer than 220 marks and 50 percent or above in no more than two subjects in their School Certificate. They were chosen from a range of socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds to minimise the possibility that access to valuable social networks was a function of their parents’ position in the jobs market.

The interviews revealed that one reason the fathers in the study had been confident about their labour market prospects was because their social networks provided reliable information about vacancies, and helped them obtain apprenticeships. Strathdee also argues social networks gave them access to a cultural tradition – this facilitated school-to-work transitions, but also reproduced social class divisions by exposing the fathers to the cultures of the families’ work places. Strong demand in the labour market for poorly qualified school leavers, together with social networks that were well formed and embedded within the social infrastructure meant that school-to-work transitions were completed with ease.

The sons in the study experienced a very different world, where it was much more difficult for poorly qualified school leavers to obtain ‘real work’. This difficulty in finding employment, Strathdee suggests, prevented many of the sons from leaving school at the minimum leaving age. Their parents were less well equipped to advise them about job opportunities, which the author argues was the consequence of globalization, technological change, credential inflation and de-industrialisation. Additionally, the sons were often uninterested in the kinds of work their parents may have been able to secure for them, as they saw them as poor quality. Over the three years of the study, it was seen that although social networks were less useful to help the sons find jobs, when they eventually found employment, the ‘strong ties’ of their parents played an important role for some: having no luck in the open market, they then lowered their aspirations. Others entered post-compulsory training programmes for at-risk youth: ‘In this respect the data show that the State is adopting functions formerly completed by social networks by linking the sons with recruiting employers’ (p.322).

Strathdee concludes that the decline in value of social networks has made finding a job more problematic for poorly qualified school leavers and increased uncertainty in school-to-work transitions. This is apparent in both the poor quality of the jobs leading from social networks, and the fact that fewer jobs are available through this avenue. Those with weak social networks must increasingly rely on state training programmes to link them with employers.

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