Schools and the twenty-first century labour market: perspectives on structural change

By Dr Anthony Mann (Director of Policy and Research, Education and Employers) and Prue Huddleston (Professor Emeritus, University of Warwick).

In the British Journal of Guidance & Counselling


This study investigates the UK youth labour market, looking at how changes within it have (negatively) affected the economic prospects of young Britons. Considered collectively, no generation has entered the world of work with more years of schooling, higher levels of qualification or greater human capital to their names, however mounting evidence shows them struggling to compete for economic opportunities.

To understand and unravel these structural changes, this study draws upon semi-structured interviews with eight policy commentators exceptionally well placed to offer insight into the character and consequences of the changing youth labour market. The perspectives from commentators who include Hugh Lauder, Andreas Schleicher, Kay Carberry, Chris Husbands, Ewart Keep and Lorna Unwin were tested with recruiters operating at the front line of the youth labour market. With both groups, a broad question was investigated: how can schools and colleges best respond to changes in the labour market which have worked to the detriment of young people?

Interviewees identified a new of long term structural changes in the operation of the labour market which had worked against the interests of young people: technological change, globalisation, deregulation, inequality.  From this analysis, three fundamental changes were identified each with implications for schools and colleges:

(1) Complexity: The increasing complexity of the labour market has required greater levels of more authentic careers provision.

(2) Competition: School to work transitions have become more fractured with young people demanding that they leave education with greater levels of recruitment skills and resilience to compete for employment.

(3) Change: A rapidly growing number of jobs demand not just knowledge itself, but its effective application in new situations, drawing on skills commonly delivered by schools as enterprise education.

The study notes that the current generation of pupils face a significantly greater challenge in making informed investment decisions about the quality and quantity of education and training they pursue in light of an increasingly complex and opaque labour market. Upon leaving education, they face greater expectations from employers that they are job ready and greater competition for work from older workers. Once in employment, growing numbers of employers have a changed sense of what they most desire from the workforce: the new economy places much greater value on the ability of workers to be personally effective in applying their knowledge and skills in new situations. There are clear implications, summarised in the table below from each of these three structural changes in labour market operation for schools and colleges. Specifically, the analysis provides new insight into strategic approaches to educational provision designed to mitigate structural forces placing young people at disadvantage within the labour market. It encourages schools to structure provision offered to young people within a framework aimed at resolving specific and clear barriers to effective school to work transitions.


Figure 1.  Implications of labour market change for young people and schools/colleges.

Due to globalisation, liberal labour regulation, and especially technological change, for young people the labour market is increasingly…
..complex – with shifts in distribution of employment, jobs growth in new economic areas and significant change in working practices in traditional areasFor young people, investment choices (what and where to study, the value of qualifications and experience) become more difficult as the labour market becomes more complex.


For schools/colleges (primary and especially secondary), Careers Education Information Advice and Guidance enriched by extensive employer engagement becomes more important.
…competitive – with churns between employment (PT, FT, temporary), education, training, unemployment, NEET commonplaceFor young people, understanding of how the labour market works, job seeking skills (application processes and in interviewing) and personal resilience become more important.For schools/colleges, activities to develop resilience and authentic recruitment preparation in context of labour market operation become more important. Where possible, schools can help put pathways from education into work in place
…changing – with personal effectiveness and adaptability at a premium in service/knowledge economyFor young people, ability to apply their knowledge in unfamiliar situations becomes more important.For schools/colleges, applied learning (enterprise education), specifically when delivered in real-world settings, becomes more important

The article is available on the website of the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling.  The work draws on interviews with policy commentators and focus groups with recruiters previously published by Education and Employers Research.