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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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School to work: pathways for young Australians

Robyn Jorgensen
Professor Zevenbergen is a senior lecturer in education at Griffith University

Secondary schools face twin challenges: to make curricula meaningful, purposeful and relevant for the 65% of students who currently do not intend to take a tertiary career; and to equip young people for employment in the modern economy by teaching them skills in short supply.

A large-scale study conducted over 2003-2006 has examined school-to-work transition programs in urban, industrial and rural regions within the three mainland states of eastern Australia, exploring the benefits and difficulties of such pathways for students, schools and employers. The project was funded by the Australian Research Council.

The research program was conducted by a consortium of stakeholders. The team was led by Professor Robyn Zevenbergen, who has been based predominantly at Griffith University during the project but for a short while was located at Charles Sturt University. The other members were the Gold Coast City Council, Queensland Apprenticeship Services, the Riviera Group (a large marine industry on the Gold Coast), Sea World Resort on the Gold Coast and SCISCO Career Pathways (a local non-profit organisation that liaises with schools and industries in the Gold Coast region).

The scope of the study

The study covered three regions, all of which possess distinctive features of interest for the study of school-to-work transitions.

The main focus of the research was the Gold Coast region in South-east Queensland. This area has led the way nationally in terms of school-based employment training initiatives. At the time this study was commenced, Queensland had approximately 50% of the nation’s school-based Australian apprenticeships and traineeships (SBAAs), most in the south-east corridor of the State. The Gold Coast is also of interest in the fact that it does not have the traditional industrial infrastructure of most other major cities in the country. It has new industries which have new demands and orientations.

In 2004, semi-structured interviews were conducted amongst Gold Coast students, teachers and employers who were either participating in or had been involved with structured workplace experiences. Predominantly, these experiences were with SBAAs. In total, 118 students, 24 school personnel and 33 industry representatives were interviewed. Questions were open-ended and related mainly to the ways in which students were selected for training, the experiences of being involved in such workplaces and the benefits/costs of being involved in such programs. There were ten case studies the following year, in which participants in selected industries were followed and interviewed as they went about their work.

Also studied was an industrial town in central Queensland, close to mines and refineries, which was known to facilitate opportunities for pathways from school to work. Questions were posed to stakeholders, who included local principals, teachers, parents, students, industry representatives, education officials, and officers of Registered Training Organisations (RTOs).

The third focus area covered the Murray/Darling region in southern Australia. The research involved interviews with 27 teachers from New South Wales and 17 from Victoria, all of whom were responsible for the pathways programs within their schools. Almost all schools in the region participated. This section of the study provided insights into the issues confronted by rural Australia in the provision of pathways from school to work.

Findings and recommendations

The project identified significant benefits to all stakeholders when quality programs were offered that created pathways to work. Transition programs, particularly SBAAs, were found to offer innovative ways for companies and industries to address national or local skills shortages. They were also found to improve the disposition to work amongst participating students, making them ‘work ready’. Such programs also enable employers to trial potential employees, and students to trial an industry or company.

Conditions for successful programs

Successful pathways among schools, industry and the community are dependent on the quality of the networks existing between these stakeholders. Where partnerships were authentic, strong and based on mutual trust, they were found to allow more flexibility within and between schools and workplaces, a factor critical to the success of transition programs

Programs need to support mentoring in the workplace. As one supervisor indicated, there is a generation in work that was not mentored and now has to mentor young workers. Programs to help develop mentoring skills would be useful to these people.

The status of workplace learning is another major issue. In almost all sites in all the States investigated, teachers and principals described workplace learning as having low status in their schools. There is a need to raise the status of workplace learning in schools and to give adequate recognition to staff working in this area.

Schools need to select high quality students for programs, who can deal with the demands of highly technology industries and look beyond the apprenticeship period, and towards their future careers. Principals and teachers should not see school-to-work programs as an alternative for ‘problem students’.

For companies, the economic benefits are long term and should be built into their long-term planning. School-based apprenticeships and traineeships should be an integral part of the strategic plans for sustainability within a company, rather than a ‘quick money grab’.

Programs need to be responsive. They should reflect local skill needs, some of which are different to national priorities.

Issues for rural areas

In rural regions of Australia, employment options are often limited. These regions may therefore struggle to provide school-to-work transition programs to young people. Consequently, these students may have to travel to larger centres or cities to gain the skills needed for different occupations, making access to SBAAs difficult. Drought can compound the difficulties for both employers and schools/students in undertaking SBAAs and other work placements. This has serious implications for the social and economic well-being of many rural communities. When students are forced to travel long distances to take part in programs, their families need special financial support to meet the costs for transport and living-away-from-home expenses.

The need for successful school-to-work transitions

The successful transition from school to employment is becoming increasingly challenging worldwide, with research showing that students who leave school early are far more likely to be long-term unemployed. These early school-leavers are far less likely to find employment with career potential and long-term prospects, and young people, more than any other group, are exposed to falling earnings, casual, part-time or temporary work, and low-skilled jobs. It is increasingly important to ensure that the nation’s youth are provided with appropriate educational experiences that will engage them and prepare them for their lives beyond school.

  This article is based on edited extracts from on School-to-Work Transitions: Final Report by Robyn Zevenbergen and Kelly Zevenbergen, Griffith Institute for Educational Research. Copies of the full report are available from Professor Zevenbergen. Email r.zevenbergen@griffith.edu.au


Subject Headings

Transitions in schooling
VET (Vocational Education and Training)
Young adults
Secondary education
New South Wales (NSW)