I have been busy lately; for example, on Thursday I was at the ESRC festival of social science: I attended ‘The Yellow Brick Road?: Education-Work Transitions’. At this conference, we discussed the barriers to young people making a smooth entry into the workforce at the end of compulsory education, whether via higher education, training or direct application; comparisons were made between the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and France.
They all seemed to suffer from one major shortcoming – increasingly forcing young people to stay in education as long as possible in attempts to make them work ready. (e.g. “can’t go wrong with a degree” mentality/compulsory education to 18/”exit qualifications” – which need to be obtained to let the individual progress). This is a problem because, as put by Alison Wolf of King’s College, London,”schools [are] hanging on to kids they can’t serve well” and complaints are rife about “overeducation”.
This inevitably brings us to a key question: what is the point of education? Obviously to arm young people with skills and knowledge, but is it to prepare them for work and train them for it? Employers think so. Increasingly, they have been using formal education as a screening and ranking device, obviating their responsibilities to train new employees (demanding candidates with existing experience, thus narrowing the market for novices to the workforce) and rapidly declining apprenticeship opportunities. Some employers, such as many in the Netherlands, commit to training subsidised new employees, but then do not take them on full time – perpetuating the cycle of generating young people unable to enter the workforce.
Strangely, of you ask employers what they want from candidates, they don’t even know – they just want education systems to provide it for them. Schools are leaping through hoops trying to provide work-experience for children before they leave at 16 or drop out just to make sure they will be able to get jobs in industries unreasonable and demanding prior experience, thus otherwise excluding this contingent.
Sadly, educational reforms also pander to existing prejudices of employers rather than trying to make the system fairer; they force more education on young people and try to get them to achieve certain set goals as “exit qualifications”, putting undue pressure on qualifications which are not relevant to every industry. The implication that education is FOR work perpetuates the idea that candidates should be instantly work ready. Although it apparently, it takes ten thousand hours to get good at something, the emphasis for achieving this now on individual. Intense labour market emphasis undermines the instrinsic value of education, penalises candidates both with a higher education than required, and without certain selected fundamental qualifications, forcing streamlining and early career decisions – exactly the opposite of what is emerging in the labour market now, with more and more people changing industries throughout their working lives.
We are pushing our young people in two opposite directions and rapidly shrinking the job market for this sector relatively to others: this is not a consequence of the recession, but a problem with the system and we can fix it now.
Also look out for my next post on The “Problem” of Overeducation.