Work exposure, exploration and experience – The WE3 Continuum

OECD Senior Policy Analyst Dr Anthony Mann

In December 2019, a joint publication of the European Commission, European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, European Training Foundation, International Labor Organisation, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and UNESCO made the case for investment in career guidance. It set out an argument that implicitly said to countries: whatever you were investing in guidance in the past, you will most likely need to invest more in the future; however you measured the quality of your system in the past, now was the time to revisit it. The case for guidance set out by the international organisations was a simple one. As ever more young people stay in education for longer, they need to make a greater number of decisions about what, where and how hard they study, but such decisions are themselves getting harder. Due to automation, across the world jobs are radically changing, even disappearing. With the organisation of work itself altering through the innovations of the gig economy, it cannot be taken for granted that what were in the past considered ‘good jobs’ will remain so. The object of increasingly marketised higher education and training providers, young people are targeted with ever more information, but struggle to know what they can trust and what genuinely applies to them. It is unsurprising that whereas in 2000 14% of 15-year-olds in New Zealand could not name a job they expected to have at age 30, by 2018 the figure had risen to 24%. Very similar trends are seen in countries around the OECD.

As 2020 developed and the Coronavirus pandemic created a global healthcare crisis which in turn led to the deepest economic crisis for a century, the international call for a new focus on career guidance feels understated. The Covid Generation is entering the labour market at what is widely seen to be the worst moment in modern industrial history. Young people are struggling to find any work. Many are trying to stay in education as long as possible, making quick decisions without easy access to information and guidance. For those in still in school or college, subject and pathway choices are being made in response to a labour market undergoing unprecedented turbulence. Over the years ahead, others will see parents, siblings and neighbours struggle to find good work and question the value of education in securing employment. In a new age of uncertainty and economic struggle, concern will grow that young people will be subject to greater psychological stress. For the Covid Generation, the senses of meaning and purpose in life that underpin good mental health are at undeniably greater risk.

In this context, Dave Turner’s new work is extremely timely. He shows how exposure to work, exploration of work and experience of work relate to each other in a continuum. His ‘WE3’ model draws on the best available academic research and a lifetime’s observation of practice to offer guidance to both educators and members of the economic community.

His work recognises that how young people think about their working future and what they do to explore and experience it while still in school can make important differences to the success they can expect in work. Running through the paper is a conception of each young person as developing a growing sense of agency that will allow them to take a greater degree of control over their transitions out of education. The programme of work is designed to enable young people to become critical thinkers about the relationships between education, training and employment and their own journeys into adulthood.

The paper sets out practical examples which can be easily adopted by schools both in normal circumstances and within the constraints of social distancing. It does this by inviting young people to challenge unspoken assumptions and expectations about what feels right and comfortable for ‘people like me’ to do. The programme is designed to broaden, as much as raise, aspirations.

Presenting young people with multiple opportunities to hear for themselves first-hand about different occupational areas, students will gain new capacity to match their interests, enthusiasms and capabilities with opportunities across the labour market. Through iterative experiences, students will have the chance to build their understanding of the pathways open to them.  At the heart of the programme’s success will be ensuring that young people have access to authentic insights into today’s working world.

Research shows that the greater the engagement of young people with employers during their education, the higher the earnings they can expect in their twenties. This observation suggests that where young people are given access by their schools to relevant, authentic and timely information, they will make good use of it and be better placed to find their way to those parts of the labour market that best value their knowledge and skills. It is unreasonable and inefficient to allow young people to make decisions on the sole basis of insights available from their home lives. Too many, especially the most disadvantaged, will fail to gain access to the information and experiences they need to enable smooth transitions. On occasion, apprenticeship and work placement programmes are sold to employers on the basis that they should ‘try, before they buy.’ Why shouldn’t the same apply to young people?

Employer engagement must be frequent, varied and considered. Effective systems offer plentiful opportunity to students from the primary years onwards to engage thoughtfully with workplaces and the people who work in them from apprentice to CEO. Young people’s thoughts about their futures emerge from social contexts – peers, community agencies, educators, families all have roles to play.

Dave Turner, the author of this work, draws on deep reading and personal experience of employer engagement programmes in Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland, the UK and many other places. Dave would argue that it is economically stupid and personally cruel to let a young person travel through schooling ignorant of the world of work that they will enter – and he would be right.

Educationalists, employers and governments around the world will be thankful to Dave for his work and to the Toi Economic Development Agency in Eastern Bay of Plenty, New Zealand for their commission.

Dr Anthony Mann, 10/9/20

Read the paper in our library here.