This seems difficult to make sense of, considering the pace of change that people of school age in the 21st century have witnessed in the last two decades alone. But PISA has shown that young people’s ideas have not maintained pace with labour market transformations driven by globalisation, digital technologies and the changing nature of work taking shape in response. Indeed, these phenomena have outpaced the ability of young people to develop more informed, more nuanced understandings of the labour market and how they might engage in it when they enter the workforce. Although this seems more a failure of governments and educators to shape policy in step with industrial transformation than of young people to make sense of a changing world.
Regardless, young people still do not grasp the rapid changes taking place with the digitally driven transformation of occupations and industries. For some time now it has been apparent that traditional jobs in manufacturing and services industries are being automated, with low-paying jobs involving manual tasks (i.e. caring-related occupations), and high-paying jobs involving cognitive tasks (i.e. technical and professional services-related jobs) remaining. And a recent study has suggested that digital technologies are driving skills demand in both these respectively low-paying/high-skill and high-skill/high-paying occupations – the former dominated by women and the latter by men. If the PISA 2018 findings are anything to go by, such labour market skills demand risks reinforcing the divide between genders in terms of pay, and socio-economic groups in terms of occupations.
What can be done?
The PISA 2018 report has shown the already entrenched mismatch between the career aspirations and expectations of many young people around the world and the real-life dynamics of labour markets. It is thus important that education prioritises affording young people adequate opportunity for exposure to the possibilities of careers that are only now growing with technological innovation, or which have performed consistently despite education policy and skills and training programs wedging young people towards the higher end of the employment skills and income scale, but failing to successfully account for the socio-economic factors that complicate this approach.
Young people must be introduced to the diversity of work and career possibilities through engagement with business and industry while still at school. Experience of the world of work is a clearly important factor in helping young people to develop career expectations and to capture their imagination for the broad possibilities that their workforce participation can offer.
A finding that won’t surprise many in the Australian VET sector is that the PISA 2018 findings illustrate how countries with strong, institutionalised systems of VET for teenagers (like the ‘dual system’ in Germany and Switzerland that recruits apprentices and interns still in high school) produce broader career interests that more closely align with patterns of labour market demand. This exposure to the wide world of work also better equips young people for their careers and the impact that rapidly changing technologies will have on skills development.
To a far greater extent, schools in Australia can help to shape new and positive experiences of work amongst young people by connecting them to real-world work experience opportunities for the purpose of building the skills and competences that are transferrable across occupations and industries, especially with the use of technology. Pre-apprenticeship and school-based apprenticeship programs in schools can work towards offering alternatives for young people to thrive in emerging industries or in industries that continue to grow with changes in technology.
Beyond this, there is an important role of prime influencers in the lives of young people. Parents, career advisers and other key individuals that act as role models and knowledge guides for school-aged people must ensure that they better clarify realities about the future of work. A clearer picture for young people will help them to realise this is most likely not a future where everyone needs a university degree; nor is it one in which all forms of manual labour will be eradicated. Nevertheless, the digital age is one in which digital numeracy and literacy will be critical to all forms of work. Helping young people grasp their place in the digital age is a task to which all educational pathways, especially VET, must respond.