Work experience placements are mandatory in the UK for all young people aged 16–18 in education, and their employability effects and associated wage premia are well noted in the literature.
In the half a century since the Newsom Report (1963) first recommended that exposure to the working world be incorporated into the final years of British schooling, the relationship between classroom and workplace has become a mainstay of political debate and policy intervention (Stanley, Mann, and Archer 2014). In England, work experience placements moved from being a marginal activity aimed at a small proportion of lower achievers in the 1960s to mainstream provision, following the Wolf Report (2011). It is now expected of all pupils enrolled in education between the ages of 16 and 18.
Teenage workplace engagement and adult employment outcomes
In recent years a small, but growing, body of research literature has tested whether school-mediated exposure to the workplace is linked to improved outcomes in the early labour market. In the United States, four notable studies have used longitudinal data to test whether young people undertaking learning programmes rich in employer engagement went on to secure higher earnings than control groups. Evaluations of programmes delivered by Jobs for the Future (1998), Montgomery County Public Schools (Applied Research Unit 2001) and MacAllum et al. (2002) followed high school graduates one to six years into the labour market. Each review showed programme alumni to be enjoying average earnings up to 25% greater than control groups. While such results are striking, lack of transparency over methodologies used in creating control groups, low sample sizes and lack of independence suggest findings should be treated with caution (Mann and Percy 2014, 4).
Most persuasive of the US studies is a 2008 evaluation by research agency MDRC of labour market outcomes among alumni of US Career Academies, a learning programme combining academic and technical curricula around a career theme delivered in partnership with employers who provided work-based learning opportunities (Kemple and Willner 2008). Eight years after leaving high school, the labour market outcomes were assessed of 1428 respondents who either participated in the Career Academies programme between ages of 15 and 18 or were randomly assigned to a control group. While the two groups had similar levels of attainment and had progressed to higher education in similar proportions, Career Academies alumni earned on average 11% more than control group peers. A separate study confirms Career Academies’ students to be sta- tistically more likely to partake in employer engagement activities, such as work experience and related work-based learning experiences, than peers (Orr et al. 2007).
Here, we draw on this conceptualisation and employ textual analysis to analyse 488 responses that young adults aged between 19 and 24 years gave to an open question within a 2011 YouGov survey. The question focussed on the school-mediated employer engagement activities respondents participated in between the age of 14 and 19 and invited participants to reflect on ‘what [they] got out of employers being involved in [their] education’.
The statement was coded in terms of both social capital (because of the information about career options reportedly provided through the experience) and cultural capital (because of the confidence reportedly gained). Note that the analysis offered here is primarily qualitative. How- ever, the way in which we have selected quotes from participants is informed by broader quantitative distributions in the data. These patterns will now be outlined, first for the whole population and then broken down according to school type.
In total, the distribution of capitals identified by the 190 respondents who perceived their employer experiences as beneficial favoured cultural capital, as respondents reported becoming more self-assured (‘doing my work experience at fifteen helped me a lot by boosting my confidence’) and being constructively challenged about personal dispositions (‘community action in a charity shop showed me there are more rewards to working than just monetary’). Human capital (‘useful to show how you can apply the skills you are learning’) and social capital (‘personal contacts were helpful’) were each only about one-third as common as cultural capital, as Figure 1 shows.
Based on the analysis of capital within the statements submitted by survey respondents, we propose that young people’s experiences are best understood within a cycle of employer engagement, as visualised in Figure 3.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at The ‘Employer Engagement Cycle’ in Secondary Education: analyzing the testimonies of young British adults