Preparing youth for work: What really works in career guidance?

Stylised graphic showing young people working and studying

By Catalina Covacevich

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– New OECD analysis highlights 11 confirmed indicators of teenage career readiness.
– Career guidance that incorporates these indicators can lead to better employment outcomes for young people.
– During the COVID recovery, effective career guidance will play a central role in helping young people navigate the turbulent labour market.

As young people stay in education and training longer, more of the decisions they make will have long-term consequences when they seek to find desirable work as adults. Young people turn to their families for support, but families are inevitably limited in the extent of the help they can provide. This is where schools come in.

Students vary considerably in the extent to which they are able to visualise and plan their futures, with the most disadvantaged at greatest risk. Schools can democratise access to the information and experiences that can help students as they navigate their paths through education systems.

Students are not receiving the career guidance they need

Some students are fortunate enough to receive a lot of support from their schools. However, many young people complain they did not receive enough – or any – guidance from their schools. We found this when we interviewed young adults as part of the OECD’s Career Readiness project:

“My school didn’t even have a guidance counsellor, so I had to seek that guidance elsewhere.” (Chile)

“I went to an elite private international school… My school would teach us how to recite seven poems in five different languages, but didn’t prepare us sufficiently for life after education…  I left not understanding anything about the world of work.” (Spain)

“I’d have loved it if at school one day a week we’d heard from people doing different professions… to tell us about what their job was all about, what you need to do to get into it, how the work is, what sort of life you can expect.” (Ireland)

“I learned how to write a CV on my own, picking up tips from the Internet, and using a template. It all ended up ok for me, but I would’ve liked to have someone to walk me through what to do.” (New Zealand)

Modern societies expect individuals to navigate choices and manage their own careers, but international assessment of 15-year-old students, PISA showed in 2018 that students in many countries are poorly prepared to develop the agency needed for their transitions. By age 15, on average across OECD countries, just 50% of students had spoken to a guidance advisor in school. Only 4 in 10 students across OECD countries reported having participated in job shadowing or a workplace visit.

Even under normal economic circumstances, young people face difficulties in their transitions into the world of work, often struggling to compete for available employment. These difficulties have increased during the COVID-19 emergency, with young people finding themselves more affected than other workers by uncertainty, lay-offs and recruitment freezes – and now needing to make decisions of long-term importance in face of a turbulent labour market.

In 2019, across the OECD, people under 25 were 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed than older people - Young people often struggle in comparison to older people because they typically have less understanding, less experience and fewer useful contacts than older people in the search for work.

Career readiness during COVID

How do we know what really works in career guidance? The OECD’s Career Readiness project draws on the best available international evidence to understand how schools can reduce student risk of unemployment and poor school-to-work transitions, bringing relevant evidence of ‘what works’ to the attention of practitioners and policy makers during this period of global economic turbulence.

The project does this by looking at evidence found in national longitudinal studies which follow the same cohort of people from school to early adulthood. We first assessed the existing literature, then undertook new analysis of 12 datasets from 10 countries (in our papers Indicators of teenage career readiness and Thinking about the future) looking at career guidance-related attitudes and experiences at ages 14-16, and identifying relationships with better outcomes in employment 10-15 years later.

The career readiness analysis took place in Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Korea, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States and Uruguay.

We can now be confident about the characteristics of more effective career guidance

We identified and explored 14 possible indicators of career readiness. Of these, we determined that 11 are confirmed indicators of career readiness, using as a criterion that there must be evidence of an association with positive labour outcomes in at least three countries. Falling into three broad categories, these indicators are:

Exploring the future

  • Career conversations
  • Engaging with people in work through career talks or job fairs
  • Workplace visits or job shadowing
  • Application and interview skills development activities
  • Occupationally-focused short programmes

Experiencing the future

  • Part-time work
  • Volunteering

Thinking about the future

  • Career certainty
  • Career ambition
  • Career alignment
  • Instrumental motivation towards school
Students find it easier to find work in countries where there is more guidance available in schools

What this means in practice is that teenagers who took part in such activities and exhibited more mature career thinking can very often be expected to experience lower rates of unemployment, higher wages and greater job satisfaction as young adults. They can be seen as gaining access to the tools and resources that make it easier for them to navigate their school to work transitions. 

While the data is limited and results concentrated in a small number of countries, the Career Readiness study adds substantial new evidence that better adult employment outcomes can often be associated with teenage indicators of career readiness. Secondary school students who explore, experience and think about their futures in work frequently experience lower levels of unemployment, receive higher wages and are happier in their careers as adults.

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Image: © OECD 2021