Employer engagement in the school-to-work transitions of young Britons

In 2014, Routledge published the first ever research collection on the subject of employer engagement in education. Among the essays was a piece which we co-wrote:  School-mediated employer engagement and labour market outcomes for young adults: wage premia, NEET outcomes and career confidence.  It presented a full and final analysis of survey data from 2011 which explored the relationships between how young adults (aged 19 to 24) from different backgrounds were doing in the labour market (in terms of earnings, likelihood of being NEET and confidence in career progression) and the volume and character of recalled episodes of school-mediated employer engagement.

Statistically significant relationships between teenage participation in employer engagement activities and later employment outcomes were initially presented in a 2012 Education and Employers paper It’s Who You Meet.  Fuller analysis relating to scale of impact followed. Results related to earnings were published in the internationally influential, peer-reviewed Journal of Education and Work. Using interval regression analysis, we were able to demonstrate a statistically significant correlation between recollections of school-mediated, teenage employer engagement and earnings.  Working with a sample of 169 individuals reporting full-time employment and using a scale of 0 to 4+ employer engagement activities, the analysis showed an average wage premium of 4.5% (or £900) per each recalled episode of employer engagement.

In the Routledge chapter, we summarise findings related to earnings and additionally set out two other analyses.  The first relates to career confidence.  The survey found that over half of young adults recalling four or more school-mediated workplace contacts felt what they were then doing (as young adults) to be very helpful to their future career plans, whereas only one-third of pupils recalling no teenage contacts agreed. A simple test of statistical significance checked whether these results were masks for other social characteristics and ruled this out. As such, we can be confident that social characteristics such as ethnicity, gender, geography, academic qualifications and school type are not simply driving the relationship between employer engagement and career confidence.

The chapter finally presents full and final analysis concerning the relationship between teenage experiences of the working world and NEET status.  We had asked our respondents about their status on the day of the poll in 2011 and then put our young people into two groups – those who were in education, employment or training (people who were actively and formally building their human capital or exchanging it for cash with an employer) or not doing so.  This second group, the so-called NEETs, have rightly become subject of considerable policy interest and discussion over the last decade.  When publishing our results initially in 2012, we had presented a clear statistical relationship between the volume of recalled teenage school-mediated employer engagement and likelihood of being NEET.  The statistical test (Kendall’s Tau C) showed that young Britons who had higher volumes of employer engagement whilst in school were – by a scale of five to one – significantly more likely to not be NEET at the time of the poll and that the finding was not due to age, region, gender, ethnicity, school type attended or highest level of qualification.  For the Routledge chapter, we were able to dig into the relationship observed and, using ordinal logistic regression, gain a better sense of the extent of the relationship.  The statistical tool allows for data to be unpacked and gives a more accurate sense of the scale of impacts observed for different types of young people.

In the Routledge chapter, using multiple regression analyses on a sample of 850 individuals, we were able to show that young British adults who experienced two or more school-age employer contacts through their schools or colleges were significantly less likely to be NEET when compared to comparable peers who enjoyed no such contacts.  Notably, the data showed that impacts were greatest for young people going into the labour market with lower levels of qualifications (see Table 1).

Table 1.  Percentage of young Britons (19-24) who reported being non-NEET by volume of school-mediated employer contacts and highest level of qualification

Highest level of qualification0 contacts2+ contacts
Level 3 or above79%89%
Level 2 or below56%74%

Looking across a range of different sets of individual characteristics, the study showed that the benefit associated with two or more episodes of teenage employer contact versus none to be 5-20 percentage points improvement in the probability of being non-NEET with the largest effects being associated with lower attainers based outside of London.

Elsewhere, in the Routledge collection, perspectives are offered on why such effects might be expected.  In a chapter with Elnaz Kashefpakdel, the full descriptive results provided by the data are set out.  The chapter illustrates the perceptions of many young (although not all) adults that they felt that different employer engagement activities (work experience, careers talks, enterprise activities, mentoring) did help them to get a job after education or helped them to get into university.  The analysis also sheds further light on the importance of volume in the interaction of teenagers with employers (see Table 2). Asked, for example, whether career talks with local employers was helpful in deciding on a career, the results showed significant variation.

Table 2. Percentage of young Britons (19-24) who agree/strongly agree that interactions with employers in career talks were useful to them in deciding on a career – by volume of engagement.

Volume of interactionsVery usefulQuite & very useful
Once or twice8%55%
Three times or more28%84%

The significance of volume is picked up in conceptualisations of employer engagement (with Julian Stanley, University of Warwick), in our Journal of Education and Work article on earnings and in the Education and Employers Research publication: Employer engagement in education: literature review.

In each of these pieces, we draw on research insights on the power of social capital particularly associated with US sociologist, Mark Granovetter.  What Granovetter was able to show first in his 1973 article “The Strength of Weak Ties” and 1974 book Getting a Job was that someone who knows a larger number of people working across different parts of the labour market is at an advantage in finding work when compared to someone similarly experienced and qualified but who knows a small group of people who have more limited experience.  Granovetter demonstrated that a broad network gives an individual greater access to information which was potentially new and useful to them or in technical terms, access to greater volumes of non-redundant additional information.

It is an idea which is easy to relate to.  We value our own experiences and the opinions of relatives, friends or friends of friends because we think they will tell us straight; that they will give us honest views with our best interests at heart. We can see the way that school-mediated employer engagements can fulfil similar functions, presenting insights into different work worlds which are difficult to ignore or doubt. We can judge for ourselves how the exchange of labour for monetary reward exists in a specific setting and form our own views about how these new insights relate to our ongoing everyday decisions about the education, skills, qualifications, training, and experience we amass.   How the information is received and what can be done with it will depend on many other factors (family resources, age, interests, abilities, social expectations, access to professional careers advice), but it need only take one spark to light a fire.  A bit like throwing mud at a wall, the more that is thrown, the more likely it is that something will stick – and if it does stick (and often it will), it provides new and useful insight to navigating the increasingly precarious pathways from the classroom to sustained presence in the workplace.

A video of the key findings from It’s Who You Meet can be found here.