The ‘Employer Engagement Cycle’ in Secondary Education: analysing the testimonies of young British adults

By Dr Steven Jones (Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics, University of Manchester), Dr Anthony Mann (Head of Policy and Research, Education and Employers) and Katy Morris (Education and Employers)

In previous work undertaken by Education and Employers Research, evidence has been revealed which shows direct relationships between the volume of school-mediated employer engagement undertaken by a teenagers and their later earnings as a young adult.

In this new peer review article, published in the leading international Journal of Education and Work, Dr. Steven Jones, Dr. Anthony Mann and Katy Morris look into how we can best explain wage premiums by looking at the testimonies of young adults themselves.  Analysing written responses to a broad question in a YouGov survey, they use textual analysis to seek out evidence of whether anything changed as a result of teenage exposure to workplaces and working professionals.

Specifically, drawing on work by Julian Stanley (then of the University of Warwick) and Anthony Mann, they look for evidence of whether the 190 young people who recorded something positive emerged from their teenage employer engagement, felt that the benefit fell into one of three different areas – did they feel that they improved their:

Human capital: augmenting technical, employability skills or qualifications;

Social capital: accessing new and useful information and opportunities through new personal connections;

Cultural capital: improving confidence and motivation in how they felt about their educational experience and career ambitions.

The analysis showed that young people comparatively rarely felt that they had improved human capital as a result of their employer engagement, but instead argued that it was more likely that they changed the way that they felt about themselves and their aspirations (a form of cultural capital) which stemmed from new personal interactions (social capital). And often, young people gained multiple benefits from their interactions. The paper finds important variation by type of school attended in the nature of the benefits claimed, with alumni of independent schools being twice as likely to testify to social capital accumulation as peers educated in the non-selective state sector. This is a finding which resonates with previous work undertaken on the extent of employer engagement in the independent sector.

The editor of the Journal of Education and Work has kindly given permission for the article to be hosted on this website.

Download The ‘Employer Engagement Cycle’ in Secondary Education: analysing the testimonies of young British adultsJones et al Journal of Education and Work 2015

Watch Anthony Mann and Steven Jones present findings at the 2014 Education and Employers Research conference

The article concludes:

In the context of the growing number of quantitative studies which point to meaningful economic gains in young adulthood for those who participated in employer engagement activities when at school, this article has used the theoretical framework developed by Stanley and Mann (2014) to analyse the reflections of 380 young adults on their school-mediated employer engagement and identify the relative influence of human, social and cultural capital within their recollected experiences. Overall, the analysis supports the view that the theorisation of capitals offers useful explanatory tools for understanding different experiences of school-age employer engagement activities and sheds new light on how and why employer engagement may convey long-term benefits for participating young people. We present a new, visual representation of the capitals associated with employer engagement within an analysis underpinned by testimonies collected directly from young people themselves. While different types of capital are recognisable, they cannot be neatly separated. Rather, they bleed into, trigger and inform one another. Those young people who are able to break into this cycle benefit exponentially, as existing forms of capital constantly mobilise other capitals. However, for others, either because opportunities are limited or the engagement available is unsuitable, the deficit widens over time.


Some young people perceive employer engagement to have been more useful than others. This is partly to do with the nature of the engagement and partly to do with the habitus of those young people, but it also reflects how the engagement is conceptualised. Not all young people are equally equipped to deploy their work experience as a ‘launch pad’ (Evans, Schoon and Weale 2012, 38; Zukas 2013) for entry to higher education or career development. Models of ‘Life-course Analysis’ (Pallas 2007) suggest that the ability to conceptualise individual interventions in terms of one’s whole life progression is important and not equally distributed. In our data, evidence was found that young people from more educationally advantaged backgrounds were much better at conceptualising employer engagement as a ‘stepping stone’ within a long-term career plan.


Cultural capital is the clearest benefit associated with engagement as young people from all backgrounds grow in personal confidence and begin to develop insights that prove valuable when navigating the job market. This links to social capital, the second most common type, which often involves establishing a range of ‘weak ties’ providing resources of differing types rather than a single connection that leads to permanent employment. Human capital in the traditional sense of skills development was found to be relatively low frequency, thereby challenging the assumption that teenage exposure to working professionals necessarily generates ‘employability skills’. Young people more commonly use employer engagement to aid self-realisation than to develop workplace skills directly. In other words, they become better equipped to make connections between their academic input and their future roles in the workplace.


This analysis consequently suggests that school-mediated employer engagement contains within it potential resource to enable smoother navigations from the teenage classroom to the adult workplace. As a series of recent studies note, school to work transitions have become longer, more fractured and more complex over the last generation (OECD 2010; Tomlinson 2013). With young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, often struggling to understand the character of local labour markets (Yates et al. 2011; Norris and Francis 2014; St. Clair, Kintrea, and Houston 2014), the value of authentic engagements with employers whilst still in education can perhaps best be seen as providing resources to enhance individualised journeys from school to work. Arguably, it is in this arena and within this process that the greatest explanatory potential for understanding the connection between teenage employer engagement and adult wage premia can be found.


In theoretical terms, the study calls for a reconceptualisation of ‘capital’ in relation to employer engagement. The value of employer engagement for young people often lies in its perceived authenticity. It acts more as a trusted route towards social and cultural capital than as a direct accretion of human capital. Common to young people of all educational backgrounds is a perception that workplace staff communicate more directly and truthfully about labour market realities than other sources. These ‘trustworthy reciprocal social relations’ (Raffo and Reeves 2000) are key to both enhancing young people’s self-confidence and giving them the ‘weak ties’ needed to progress.


Similarly valued by respondents are the kind of insights (‘socialised’ human capital) that allow the often hostile terrain between school and higher education or full-time employment to be navigated more readily. As noted by Kemple and Willner (2008, 40), accumulation of such ‘invisible’ capital is more common than mastery of direct, technical skills. This article also suggests that ‘negatively accumulated’ cultural capital is an important outcome of employer engagement, as young people become endowed with enhanced agency to reject some vocational options and re-engage with academic routes. This elimination-and-motivation approach was especially appreciated by young people who had been schooled in the non-selective state sector. Indeed, because of the cyclical nature of capital, in delivery terms, it is important that opportunities for all young people to engage with employers are maximised, regardless of school type or whether their preferred route is academic or vocational. This calls for managed experiences, where broader early exposure is mandated and later, more focused exploration is facilitated. Employer engagement is a highly effective strategy to help young people rule in and rule out potential pathways, but only if they are able to access, understand and conceptualise it in appropriate ways.


The effect of employer engagement on young people is therefore complex and nuanced, with different types and sub-types of capital inter-connecting in reciprocal and often unexpected ways. This underlines the value of employer engagement, as articulated in the Newsom Report (1963) and in multiple policy documents since. However, textual analyses of responses to the YouGov survey also suggest that the capitals accumulated are cyclical and self-reproducing in that the social gains of workplace exposure and widening networks soon lead to cultural gains in confidence that in turn facilitate savvier decision-making when it comes to choices about destinations and greater awareness of how academic knowledge connects to employability skills. For those on the carousel, the incremental follow-on gains make employer engagement a highly efficient mechanism to achieve their goals. For those not on the carousel, the risk is ever-increasing distance from the all-important capitals that their peers continue to accrue.