Outcomes are showing the need for more support for the 25% of students who make a direct entry to the labour market from school, writes PROFESSOR JOHN POLESEL.

Most young people in NSW make a successful transition from school to higher education or to vocational education and training, but greater focus needs to be given to almost one-quarter of students "precariats" who hope to find meaningful full-time work straight from school.

The transition to university is a key concern of secondary schools around Australia. This is because higher education plays an important role in preparing young people for the professions and for other skilled
occupations. It also provides a pathway to social mobility for a range of school users including traditionally under-represented groups like low socio-economic status (SES) and non-metropolitan

An analysis of recent NSW data that considers the transitions of young people from school to further study and employment suggests most young people in this state make a successful transition from school to higher education or to vocational education and training (VET) including apprenticeships and traineeships. In broad brush strokes, we might say that half the school completer cohort goes to university and a further one-quarter goes into vocational education of some kind. 

However, the outcomes for the remaining one-quarter of students are somewhat more worrying. These are the young people making a direct entry into the labour market, with the largest group working part time in low-skilled, casual jobs and many more unemployed or disengaged entirely from the labour market. Only a small minority of this group finds full-time work or a combination of jobs that
approximates full-time hours. The outcomes for these young people who enter the labour market rather than going into university or VET have been characterised by researchers in terms of a “precariat” — that is, a group made up of young people, who (if they are working) are in short-term contract positions, insecure jobs, with no paid holidays or sick leave and receiving little training. Moreover, we know that gender, socio-economic status and location all have an impact on the quality of these transitions. Some groups of young people are much more vulnerable to poor transitions than others. 

The NSW data suggests that low socio-economic status students, low achievers and those living outside of metropolitan Sydney all have weaker outcomes. Moreover, young women who enter the labour market directly are considerably more likely than their male friends to be in part-time work. To these findings we should add what we know about those who do not even get to the end of the HSC. For the early leavers, the outcomes are even more troubling, with even higher proportions entering the realm of unemployment and part-time, casual work. Once again, region, socioeconomic status and gender impact on the transitions of this vulnerable group. And yet contrary to the realities, when we look at the career expectations of young people (see Table 1), the majority have high aspirations when it comes to their employment outcomes.

The findings suggest that we may need to reconsider the culture of our secondary schools, which is still one that places university entry above all other goals, perhaps to the detriment of other pathways. The findings suggest that there is a need to address the status of VET that is offered in schools and that there is a need to provide more coherent vocational programs, which create clearly signposted pathways to further study. Finally, they suggest that careers advice and guidance must reflect the needs of all young people, not just those going to university.

Ways to enhance school leaver support
• Better understanding of actual pathways achieved in NSW schools
• Better understanding of what happens to young people who leave school with no further education or training
• Better links with employers/industry
• Better links with TAFE/VET
• More emphasis on non-university pathways in careers education
• Promotion of VET in Schools as a pathway to further education and training, not a pathway to work
• Better support structures for those leaving school and not entering further education or training, including deferrers.

Professor John Polesel is an academic with the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. He recently presented these findings at The AIS Conference: Capabilities, Future Proofing Learners K-12 in Sydney.