Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Young people entering work: A review of the research

An acas research paper (Ref: 18/12) by Sarah Oxenbridge and Justine Evesson (Employment Research Australia)

Executive summary

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) commissioned a review of research examining young people’s expectations of work, the challenges they face in starting work, and the means by which their transition to work may be improved. It sought to capture the perspectives of both young people and employers. The review was undertaken in the context of high levels of youth unemployment in Britain in mid-2012.

A search of the available research studies and reports found an abundance of literature on employers’ views of the skills required by young people entering the workplace, but less on employer strategies for easing young workers into first jobs. There was also a relative paucity of research investigating young adults’ perceptions and thoughts about the journey into work and their expectations of jobs and employment, prior to obtaining work. In addition, little research was found that examined how young people in their first jobs experience working life. An issue of some concern is the current gap in the literature relating to the expectations and experiences of young people in Britain, before and after starting work, from the time of the 2008 recession onwards and in the context of deepening youth unemployment.

Views of young people before and after starting work

Studies of young people in the UK point to considerable variation in knowledge of work and labour market conditions. Disadvantaged young people and those from rural areas had limited knowledge while other studies of young people in the round found high awareness of the nature of work and realism about labour market conditions and opportunities for employment. Some found that most young people were aware of limited local job opportunities, yet remained positive about obtaining employment. Recent studies find that high proportions of young people in the UK perceive work experience (or a lack of it) as the main enabler (or barrier) to obtaining work.

Most young people who were anticipating a move into work, or who had started work, felt they possessed high levels of awareness of the soft skills (including enthusiasm, communication and problem solving skills) desired by employers, and in some cases, felt that they possessed these attributes. However, studies of employer opinions regarding whether novice workers were in possession of soft skills indicated mixed findings. Some survey findings demonstrated a majority employer view that young recruits are well-prepared for work, while smaller qualitative studies revealed employer views that novice workers lacked essential soft skills.

The challenges faced by young people

While young people may be aware of the importance of soft skills, or may feel that they possess them, research indicated that they may feel vulnerable, unprepared or lacking confidence when starting work. Young people reported finding the early days of their first jobs intimidating, daunting and anxiety-provoking and felt that employers held unrealistic expectations of their skills and abilities given their lack of experience. Some reported difficulties adjusting to the work lifestyle, in particular the long hours and level of responsibility involved in their job. Researchers advocate that educators should provide guidance for young people anticipating work, to help them to understand and deal with the anxiety they may experience on entering work, and that employers make an effort to “socialise” young people entering workplaces for the first time.

Before starting work: means of improving young people’s work-readiness

Young people’s engagement with workplaces before transitioning to post-education employment may take the form of part-time work combined with study, work experience, employer involvement in the education system, vocational and educational training (VET) programmes, and via labour market intermediaries.

Research indicates that workplace engagement prior to transitioning to post-study employment offers a range of benefits for young people. Studies demonstrate that the soft skills required by employers are best developed ‘on the job’, and that employers increasingly seek employees with some form of prior work experience. Workplace engagement prior to post-study employment enables young people to: develop employability skills and confidence; identify with the benefits associated with employment; avoid the ‘culture shock’ that occurs when beginning work; improve their post-study job prospects via network and Curriculum Vitae-building opportunities; and help them refine decisions regarding career options and pathways.

Australian studies found structured engagements (school-based apprenticeships and work placements) were valued more by young people for enhancing employability than part-time work or short work experience placements. This compared with UK studies of young people, the majority of whom felt that work experience is the most valuable means of building employability skills prior to starting work.

The report describes the range of mechanisms by which school students and unemployed young people may undertake work experience. Research identifies student views of the deficiencies of such programmes. This has led to employer and advocacy bodies developing guides setting out how work experience can be recast to be more “meaningful” for those involved (students, employers, and schools). More generally, these bodies have begun to promote greater links between employers and educational institutions, and suggest ways in which employers may engage with young people at the local level. The report also profiles a sample of VET programmes and initiatives run by labour market intermediaries which have been found to improve young people’s work-readiness.

Young people starting work: employer support at the workplace

Research examining strategies by which employing organisations can provide support for novice workers is canvassed. Key among these are targeted and robust induction processes, close managerial or supervisory support, buddying and mentoring schemes, and strategies for “socialising” young workers within the workplace culture.

Research indicated a disjunction between the needs of young people entering work and the induction processes provided by employers. Induction processes were found to be generic in nature, and not tailored to address the difficulties young people described when starting work. This resulted in young workers feeling unsupported in the workplace.

However, ongoing support from workplace buddies, mentors and family members was found to be beneficial to young people starting work, and research also indicated that the experience and skill of the employer and supervisors in dealing with young workers made a significant difference to the success of the move into post-study work. Relatively simple socialisation strategies helped build novice workers’ confidence and made them feel more at ease in the workplace. Overall, research indicated that it is the nature of the day to day interactions between young people and their peers and supervisors within the context of the workplace that is most important in helping ease young people’s transition to work.

Full text (PDF 56pp)

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