This article describes and analyses the school-to-work transitions of a 2006 cohort of Dutch school-leavers with upper-secondary general and vocational qualifications (ISCED Level 3). By adopting a longitudinal perspective through the use of SA, we have been able to integrate recent ideas about school-to-work transitions into an analysis of the effect of vocational education on labour market outcomes. Although school-to-work transitions are often assumed to be smoother for vocationally educated school-leavers, this hypothesis had not been rigorously tested. We have rectified this and, moreover, we have opened up the black box of vocational education by distinguishing between four vocational fields and between classroom and workplace instruction.
Our results provide support for the hypothesis that vocational education leads to smoother labour market trajectories. We operationalized this as a higher conditional probability of entering full-time or part-time employment dominated trajectories, combined with a lower conditional probability of entering trajectories characterized by non-standard employment, unemployment, or inactivity. We also found that the strength of this association depends on the vocational field: business and technical programmes are more strongly associated with full-time employment, whereas part-time employment is more common among those with care and well-being diplomas. These differences probably reflect characteristics of the jobs that are available for school-leavers in each field. The effect of type of instruction was found to be small or non-significant, although this may be due to sample size limitations. School-leavers with general education have a higher probability of ending up in a trajectory that is dominated by non-standard employment, unemployment, and inactivity. This trajectory was also characterized by high volatility and thus may resemble a ‘precarious jobs carousel’ (Barbieri and Scherer, 2009) or a longer job matching process.
We further demonstrate that although the wages of those vocationally educated are higher initially, generally educated workers soon catch up. This process was previously thought to take place over one’s entire career, but our findings suggest that the wage benefits of vocational education may be very short-lived: within 2–5 years, those generally educated typically earn as much as those with vocational diplomas. Further, the extent to which starting wages for those vocationally educated are higher, and remain higher for longer, depends on vocational field. Given that workplace learning is in many ways ‘more vocational’, we had expected that both the benefits and the penalties would be larger than for those with classroom-based vocational education. However, we found that workplace learning in fact reduces the differences between vocationally and generally educated school-leavers terms of both starting wages and wage growth. We suspect that this is in part due to the fact that a majority of those workplace-trained remain with the employer where they received their training, although this cannot explain this effect in full.
Our results imply that, at least in The Netherlands, vocationally educated upper-secondary level school-leavers are better prepared to enter the labour market than their generally educated counterparts. We infer this from the higher probability of entering successful transition trajectories and the lower probability of returning to education. This indicates that, at least to a certain degree, vocational education provides a signal to employers that school-leavers possess certain skills that are immediately usable in the workplace. This outcome also reflects societal norms regarding general education. General diplomas are deemed as adequate to enter the labour market, but students are ‘expected’ to continue to post-secondary education. As such, it is perhaps not surprising that generally educated school-leavers who opt to enter the labour market at this stage often face several years of ‘settling in’, or may fail to gain a stable foothold in the labour market and end up in a precarious cycle of insecure jobs and unemployment. Nevertheless, school-leavers with general diplomas that do remain in the labour market are soon paid similar or better wages than those with a vocational education. Given this rather rapid catching up, the human capital value added by a vocational diploma seems limited. More research is needed to establish whether this finding applies to other cohorts and different institutional settings.
This research has shown that taking a longitudinal perspective on school-to-work transitions more realistically fits current labour market experiences of entrants than other approaches, and is also able to test hypotheses that often remain implicit assumptions. More importantly, using SA has allowed us to look beyond single points in time. The literature often reports positive effects of vocational education in one’s early career, and our results indicate that these effects may be the consequence of smoother transitions, rather than reflecting human capital differences between vocationally and generally educated school-leavers. If we had applied a transversal design with our sample, we could have, depending on which vocational field, type of instruction, or number of post-education years we had focussed upon, found positive, negative, or no vocational effects on employment and wages. However, due to using SA and its focus on trajectories, we were able to show clear distinctions in the school-to-work transitions of generally and vocationally educated school-leavers. A smooth transition into working life is in itself valuable and can have a lasting effect on careers. If, as our results seem to indicate, vocational education facilitates the transition but does not lead to substantial advantages in terms of (remunerable) skills, the challenge for policymakers lies in increasing the latter without losing the benefits of the former.