Show and tell: Employers and career guidance

“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.


Figure 1. In which career guidance activities do students participate across the OECD

Percentage of students having participated, OECD average

Show and tell: Employers and career guidance


Source: OECD, PISA 2012 Database,


In practical terms, a good place to start would be for schools and colleges without experience of engaging with employers to focus on career talks. Other stakeholders such as trade unions may also be involved.  For example, Danish VET students act as role models and visit lower secondary schools to promote VET through the campaign “The Route to VET”, a campaign initiated and led by the Danish Vocational and Technical School Students Union (

Why pay attention to its delivery? Often it is the students who appear to have the greatest need for career guidance who have the least access to it. Young people from more privileged backgrounds more often enjoy personal and family connections linked to better paying, higher status professions, and are more adept at finding the most meaningful work-based learning opportunities. Whereas engagement of employers can serve to challenge social inequalities, it can also serve to underpin patterns of intergenerational transmission of disadvantage. The study recommends that action is targeted particularly on students from families lacking strong social networks related to careers of interest.

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

To learn more about the OECD’s work on apprenticeship, vocational education and training, and adult learning, go to: or follow the team on Twitter at @AnthonyMannOECD.