Paul Herdman is the president and CEO of Rodel, a nonprofit organization working to transform public education in the First State. Also, he is the chair of strategic planning for the Delaware Workforce Development Board. This was first published by OECD Education and Skills Today.
In my early 20s, I spent an amazing year in Australia and New Zealand, working on sailboats in the Pacific and chasing down sheep on a station in the Outback. The jobs were part of my meandering launch to adulthood and gave me crucial insight into life after school. Back then, moving into the world of work was a simpler affair. Nowadays, it has become exponentially more complex. Rapid shifts in the job market mean that the path to employment is often a moving target, and automation and artificial intelligence mean that some once-predictable jobs are going away, so navigating from the relative simplicity of a classroom into working life is no easy task. And, while young people today tend to have more education and more degrees, they tend to have fewer skills and less real-world experience. As a result, young people, on average across Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, are unemployed about 2.5 times more than adults over 24, and in some countries, this ratio is much higher. Fortunately, thanks to the OECD’s Career Readiness team, there is a growing road map to help young adults get into employment.
The organization’s “career readiness indicators” set out 11 aspects of teenage career development — such as forms of career exploration and meaningful workplace experience — that can best prepare young people to compete in the labor market. Policymakers should take note because research shows that “experiencing” work-based learning as a secondary student tends to be associated with higher wages and better life outcomes, with positive implications for society, as well. However, according to OECD analysis, now, only one-third of young people have some experience with a meaningful job placement or internship by age 16.
There is clearly room for improvement, and some countries are making changes. In May, I was given the chance to head back Down Under and see what Australia and New Zealand are doing. Policymakers and practitioners there are interested in dramatically expanding work experience opportunities for high school students. I visited 11 schools and spoke to dozens of teachers, students and policymakers about their experiences to examine how their efforts are playing out in practice and to see how it aligns with the OECD’s desk research. Here are some of my first impressions:
First, in Australia, there was a sense that this was a “once in a generation” moment, with policymakers and practitioners committed to the need for all secondary students to have access to meaningful work-based learning experiences. The Shergold Review, a national report on the future of senior secondary pathways into work, adopted in 2020, makes this commitment to “all students” explicit, and they are taking this transition seriously.
In the state of Victoria, they have built a team of 80 called the Senior Secondary Pathways Reform Taskforce to implement all the reforms in a review by John Firth that builds on Shergold’s findings and is looking to redesign everything from the definition of student success to how certifications are awarded and teachers are trained. Likewise, in New South Wales, they recently created Regional Industry Education Partnerships, a 30-person team that connects employers with secondary schools across the state.
Second, in New Zealand, equity was top of mind. New Zealand’s National Education and Learning Priorities focus on building more culturally responsive classrooms to ensure every student is engaged and reaches their potential. While 70% of New Zealanders are White, the demographics are shifting. The fastest-growing populations are from the Pacific Islands and Maori communities. I visited one school in Auckland in which over 50 languages were spoken. On the heels of COVID-19, when schools and businesses shut down, many parents lost their jobs, and in many cases, students picked up part-time jobs to help their families and just didn’t come back. With large portions of absentee students being students of color, reengaging them was important. In one school, I met a group of largely young men, who were missing class earlier in the year and were now excited to be back in school by reconnecting through the building trades. Together, they were splitting their time between classes and building up to six complete homes from the ground up for their community. When asked about how this related to what they were learning in class, they were quick to explain how they now used “pi” daily. The throughline was clear. Real, meaningful, work proved a powerful way for them to not only learn but give back.
And third, in talking to dozens of students in both countries, the power of learning in the workplace was reinforced as something that was important and impossible to simulate in the classroom. At a base level, I talked to young people who shared how they simply appreciated being treated like an adult, that their voice mattered, that they learned how to talk with confidence and how to send a professional email. At a higher level, I met some young women designing community solutions, like how to understand “invisible diseases” like mental illnesses through augmented reality. I met one young woman in a program called Girls Can, Too who had struggled in school and realized, for the first time, on the floor of a diesel mechanic shop, that she was a leader. Others shared that their work experience was powerful by simply showing them what they don’t want to do. Moreover, they were not only seeing how the world of work ticked but gaining a better understanding of who they were as people.
I’m still in the early stages of sifting through the lessons learned, but in the coming months, I look forward to distilling the takeaways from Australia and New Zealand and, eventually, in Scotland, Canada and the U.S. I’ll be sharing more through podcasts and blogs along the way, and I look forward to sharing a more formal OECD working paper later this fall.