Friday, May 30, 2014

Understanding Employer Engagement in Education

by Anthony Mann
Director of Policy and Research, Education and Employers Taskforce, London, UK

Across the world, governments are asking themselves how can they close the gap between the worlds of education and employment? How can they better engage employers in the work of schools?

While hardly a new phenomenon, the attention of policy makers and commentators has grown significantly over the last decade.  It is a policy which has won the recent attention and the strong endorsement from the OECD – in its key 2010 strategic review of vocational education, Learning for Jobs – from European Union agencies (CEDEFOP and InGenious) – and from an influential team at Harvard University (Pathways to Prosperity).  In England, the main political parties no longer argue whether a period of one or two weeks work experience should be a mandatory element of secondary education, but at what age placements should best be undertaken.

Employer engagement has become rapidly established within global priorities for schooling.  It is a development which has happened largely in the absence, as set out in a new collection of essays published by Routledge, of significant research.  The collection, Understanding Employer Engagement in Education, marks the very first gathering together of serious research essays into the character, delivery and consequences of employer involvement in the learning and progression of young people.  It brings together insights from papers first offered at the international conferences and seminars arranged by the London-based education charity, the Education and Employers Taskforce.  Over seventeen essays, authors from around the world (if with a strong UK focus), analyse the phenomenon of employer engagement both within vocational education and training, through school or college based apprenticeships, and within mainstream academic schooling seen in such activities as careers talks, enterprise competitions, business mentoring and workplace visits as well as short work placements. Collectively, the contributors consider why governments have become so determined to bring workplace experiences into schooling, how such interventions can best be theorised and understood within labour markets undergoing radical change, what impacts school-mediated workplace exposure can be expected to have on recipients and how access to such experiences are distributed across society.

The collection is likely to gain most attention for three chapters which offer measurements of the impact of employer engagement in education on the educational and employment outcomes of young people.  Percy and Mann (Education and Employers Taskforce) apply quantitative analysis to recent UK survey data to show significant links between the extent of teenage employer contacts arranged through schools and later earnings, employment levels and self-declared career confidence. Massey (UKCES) explores the phenomenon from an employer perspective, analysing large scale polling to show how commonplace it is for British employers to take on permanent recruits after short periods of school-managed work placement.

From a Canadian and VET perspective, Taylor et al (University of Alberta) finds participants in school-based apprenticeships to achieve better in school and apprenticeship completion rates than peers.  The three studies add considerably to a relatively slim literature applying robust methodologies to provide the evidence that endorses the instincts of so many policy makers.

The ambition of the collection though is not just to measure gains related to employer engagement, but to critically understand how and why such benefits might be expected and to who can be expected to gain most from them.  The work begins by offering a long overdue attempt to conceptualise the experience of employer engagement within wider social and economic theory concerning the progression of young people through their educational experiences and into the labour market.  Louise Archer (King’s College, London) provides a critical review of the concept of aspiration and Julian Stanley (University of Warwick) and Anthony Mann (Education and Employers Taskforce) draw on human, social and cultural capital theory to offer a conceptual framework to help understand how young people encounter such employer contacts and how they might turn such experiences into resources of ultimate labour market value.  From a US perspective, James Stone III (University of Louisville) locates employer engagement firmly within pedagogic debates concerning the nature of practical and academic learning, while the OECD’s Kathrin Hoeckel describes the character of contemporary youth unemployment.  The collection locates employer engagement in education, consequently, squarely within fundamental debates over the relationship of education and skills provision to individual and national economic success and the changing character of school to work transitions.

Essays by Li and Devine (University of Manchester) and Holmes and Mayhew (University of Oxford) provide new quantitative analysis of longitudinal data tracking the winners and losers in the changing British labour market.  Casting new light on the nature of the problem, studies of British teenagers in urban areas by St Clair et al (University of Glasgow) and Norris (RSA) and Francis (King’s College, London) show teenage career aspirations to be almost uniformly high, but formed without “the active knowledge of what the labour market offered or close knowledge of the educational requirements of particular occupations.”

In the British context, through a series of essays it becomes clear that it is young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds who are placed at structural disadvantage in attempting to access workplace experiences to inform developing career aspirations and to provide access to resources of value to their progression out of secondary schooling.  Teenagers educated in English fee-paying schools are seen, in essays by Mann and Kashefpakdel (University of Bath), Huddleston et al (University of Warwick) and Jones (University of Manchester), to be routinely accessing work placements and careers related engagements closely linked to occupational ambitions and highly relevant to immediate designs on university admission.  In contrast, Le Gallais and Hatcher (Birmingham City University) show how social circumstances dictate access to work experience placements, unless schools actively intervene to secure and manage placements. Through these chapters, the influence of social and cultural capital theory is writ large. Bourdieu and Granovetter have much to say of relevance to contemporary policy.

In their foreword to the collection, Nancy Hoffman (Boston’s Jobs for the Future) and  Robert Schwartz (Harvard University) reflect on the significance of the issues raised in the book following their own participation in the OECD’s Learning for Jobs review.  “The urgency to engage employers in the transition from school to work in not only about the labour market”, they write. “It’s about the welfare of young people.  Youth unemployment has risen to historic proportions in many countries as a result of the global fiscal crisis, and youth across the world have articulated their frustrations about the lack of opportunities for their futures.”  In this context, the collection serves to introduce employer engagement in education as a new field of critical enquiry relevant to policy makers, practitioners and young people themselves as they seek to gain footholds in the shifting sands of the twenty-first century labour market.  In so doing, the book raises many important questions for ongoing research, marking the beginning of what is hoped will be an international exchange of evidence enabling fuller understanding of what can happen when a young person interacts with the economic community and how positive impacts can be most fully, and most equitably, distributed.

Links:
Understanding Employer Engagement in Education: Theories and Evidence, Edited by Anthony Mann, Julian Stanley and Louise Archer (London: Routledge, 2014)
OECD work on Vocational Education and Training (VET)
OECD work on Skills
Photo credit: Young employees / @Shutterstock

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