Policy overview of school-to-work transitions

Policy overview of school-to-work transitions 2017-08-29T16:16:17+00:00

Cyclical and structural factors

The dramatic rise of youth unemployment during the Great Recession and its aftermath can be largely attributed to cyclical factors such as the recession-related economic deterioration that typically affects young people more than older workers. However, there are also structural factors contributing to high youth unemployment, such as ineffective education and training systems with poor outcomes and ensuing skills mismatches; labour market segmentation; structural changes affecting youth labour markets (e.g., the hollowing-out of labour markets and skills polarisation); the patchy availability of quality work experience − which increasingly plays a crucial role in STW transitions; and the uneven PES capacity and effectiveness in providing tailored support to young people.

Policy action

In light of such structural determinants of high youth unemployment, it is not surprising that, following the Great Recession, considerable policy action has focused, across the EU, on reforming and redesigning various institutional arrangements that structure the process of STW transitions. Indeed, EU and national policies have in recent years intensified support for young people with, inter alia, a much greater focus on enhanced VET and youth-related ALMPs, notably the Youth Guarantee. For example, given the fact that VET/apprenticeships have proved effective in supporting smooth STW transitions, policy-makers across Europe have been attempting to improve VET in order to provide an attractive alternative to general upper-secondary and tertiary education and to better meet the skill requirements of the labour market.

VET/apprenticeships are critical

Overall, VET/apprenticeships still play a critical role in facilitating fast and smooth transitions, albeit to varying degrees and depending on the path-dependent institutional and cultural context. They have proved to be a key STW transition mechanism in the employment-centred cluster, notably Germany and the Netherlands, but less so in the subprotective (ES, TR) and liberal clusters (UK), while their take-up is decreasing in the universalistic cluster (SE). Not surprisingly, we found that VET participation was much higher than the EU average in the employment-centred regimes and much lower in the subprotective and the post-socialist clusters. These differences in the participation rates in VET across EU countries can be attributed in part to the differing perceptions of VET and its centrality in the STW transition process.

Policy convergence and societal differences

Crucially, there has been a convergence in policy across all clusters, in that apprenticeships are now being promoted as a high-quality route to achieving improved outcomes for young people in all clusters. However, the success of this policy shift is dependent on the specific structural and institutional frameworks that are in place to support this agenda, which varies greatly between clusters.

Dual (work-based/apprenticeships) or school-based VET systems, the strong involvement of all relevant stakeholders and a co-operative institutional framework ensure that the employment-centred regimes have a strong STW transition model. For example, Germany and the Netherlands, particularly, have below-average youth unemployment rates and STW transition duration. On the other hand, France is characterised by lengthier STW transitions and diverse labour market inclusion instruments, ranging from a variety of subsidised employment contracts to an array of VET placements, each with varying degrees of effectiveness.

The STW transitions under the UK’s liberal regime are fast but unstable, with a focus on youth employability and the promotion of young people’s economic independence as quickly as possible. Within the subprotective cluster, characterised by high youth unemployment, STW transitions are lengthier, unstable and complex. In Spain, for example, STW transitions are protracted and fragmented, while the prevalence of temporary, short-term employment contracts among young people reflects the fact that this type of employment has traditionally been a key (but controversial) STW transition instrument.

The Estonian STW transition model is focused more on a general education (school-based) pathway, while its work-based VET in the form of apprenticeships is relatively underdeveloped. In Poland, youth unemployment has been a key policy issue for the past decade, but Poland is also characterised by a high degree of labour market dualism, with the highest share of fixed-term contracts in the EU and a low (20%) transition rate from temporary to permanent employment. This has clear and negative implications for the STW transitions of Polish youth.

The Swedish model has historically been associated with a high-quality and effective education and training system, including VET, producing well-educated youth able to make fast and successful STW transitions. Similar to Germany and the Netherlands, it has been argued that these smooth STW transitions can be attributed to a high share (well above the EU average) of students combining work and study. However, as in other countries, these smooth STW transitions do not hold for all young people. Those who have not completed secondary education, or young migrants and refugees or those with disabilities, face particular barriers to labour market entry.

Employment Protection Legislation

The countries also varied in their EPL as well as the focus of their ALMPs. Differences in ALMPs between France, Germany and the Netherlands are driven by the highly different education systems and the general economic performance of these countries. Whereas dual vocational training is one important pillar of the German education system, it is less important in the Netherlands and even still less in France. Instead, wage subsidies as part of ALMPs play a crucial role in France and the Netherlands to facilitate the acquisition of work experience and/or a first job by young people. In the UK, ALMPs are not specifically targeted at young people, although there have been some flagship initiatives such as the Youth Contract as well as some youth-specific support targeted at disadvantaged youth, notably NEETs.

Likewise, although Swedish ALMPs are often aimed at all age groups, programmes like the Job Guarantee focus on young people. ALMPs in Spain often seek to improve young people’s skills, both theoretical and practical, and/or provide them with work experience. In the post-socialist cluster (EE, PL), labour market policy is less differentiated compared to employment-centred countries like Germany. This is also true for ALMPs, where there is little focus on youth in both countries, although some recent projects/programmes do focus on the specific needs of young people. In both countries, ALMPs that are used to support the STW transition of young people include training and/or employment subsidies to increase the supply of work experience placements.

Youth transition regimes are in a state of flux

Our analysis has also highlighted that, especially as a result of the Great Recession of the late 2000s, some of the characteristics of each of Pohl and Walther’s STW transition regimes are in a state of flux. For example, VET (and apprenticeships) are becoming more important STW transition mechanisms even in clusters such as the liberal (UK) and the subprotective (ES, TR). On the other hand, in the universalistic cluster, the quality and effectiveness of the Swedish education and training system (including VET, which in the past produced well-educated young people who could make fast and successful STW transitions) is currently under-performing, with obvious implications for these transitions. At the same time, VET take-up is falling. That said, it is still too early to assess whether such changes represent paradigmatic shifts in the key STW transitions mechanisms, especially in view of the path dependency and cultural and institutional specificity of STW transitions.

A requirement highlighted by our review is the need for Pohl and Walther’s typology of STW transitions to be updated and further refined on the basis of the developments that have occurred during and after the recent crisis. These developments have led to an on-going reconfiguration of education and training systems, labour market policies and institutional arrangements which are pertinent to young people’s successful entry to sustained employment. Linked to this is the need for further differentiation within the clusters themselves given the variation in institutional arrangements, which leads in turn to variation in the STW transition outcomes, as is, for example, the case of the employment-centred cluster (DE, FR, NL). The above discussion notwithstanding, our analysis did not really change the way STW transitions in each cluster have been traditionally regarded, especially in relation to their length, quality and sustainability.


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Werner Eichhorst, Florian Wozny, Kari P. Hadjivassiliou. 2016. Policy Synthesis and Integrative Report. STYLE Working Paper WP3.5

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