Are we preparing school leavers for work?

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

It’s no secret that the number of school leavers choosing vocational education has dropped significantly in the last decade, with schools encouraging students to choose university. But are we really preparing our school leavers for work?

I would say we’re doing the opposite.

We’re limiting our students’ thinking about career and education options, and driving a generation with academic knowledge, but little in the way of the skills employers are actually looking for.

This is only going to create increasing social and economic problems, fuelled by an oversupply of university graduates with heavy debt loads entering a labour market with limited prospects.

Schools have tunnel vision when it comes to careers

In a recent national study of school leavers, one third said their school did not even discuss vocational careers or opportunities outside of a university education. With a looming skills shortage, and growing youth unemployment, we are failing not only our kids, but also our economy.

The focus on university is leading us to a generation that, on many levels, is unemployable. I talk to employers every day, and what I am hearing is that they are struggling to find qualified candidates who have the aptitude for critical thinking (not just memorising)- and other core workplace skills.

The school curriculum is missing “work” skills. The national curriculum is out-dated, and it feels as though it is struggling to keep up with our rapidly changing labour market. Our school system is still working on the view of a single career for life - that stability is long gone, with most people now enjoying many different career paths in their lifetime.

Clare Madden, a leading researcher on social trends, presented recently at a VERTO conference on what we’re teaching school students. It’s frightening what passes for ‘in depth’ research these days. When school students go beyond the first page of a Google search, that’s considered in-depth research! It might be laughable, if it wasn’t leading to such dire consequences for the next generation.

This focus on university is a hang-over from the 1970s, when Australia needed more degree-qualified professionals. And while the scales have tilted heavily towards a skill shortage in key vocational industries, our school system remains geared towards academic learning and university.

Demand for university graduates dropping

I was talking about this only recently with a colleague of mine, who is in the NSW Law Society, and he was saying that there are now many more law graduates than there are jobs. In fact, it’s been noted that graduate unemployment is worse now than it was during the 1990s recession.

University is expensive, and what happens when these students graduate saddled with massive debt and limited job prospects?

Vocational training more important than ever

Vocational Education and Training (VET) opens up career paths across a wide range of industries. With national skill shortages across the aged care, agriculture and hospitality sectors, to name just a few, it’s an excellent choice for school leavers, and one we need to start showcasing better to students in our schools.

VET also offers the practical and soft skills that make good employees, experience through on-the-job training, and qualifications in industries where there are a wide-range of job opportunities currently going begging.

Often unfairly viewed as a “lesser choice,” we actually know that VET graduates are, on average, earning a starting salary that is $2,000 more than university graduates, and this is only going to rise as the demand far outweighs the number of skilled workers.

The time for change is now

The solution lies with governments and the school system working closely with industry, updating the curriculum to include critical thinking and core job-ready skills, and shifting focus to put VET career options on the same level as university.    

But they need to act quickly.

Our school leavers need to be able to succeed in a rapidly changing environment. You can’t cast out the basics of an academic education, but if schools can shift focus to include these skills, we can keep our industries, economy and labour market thriving into the future.