Transcript of VET's role in youth unemployment recovery

13 May 2021

Vocational Voices: Season 6, Episode 2

VET's role in youth unemployment recovery

Jo Waugh (00:04)
Kira has touched on a lot of the similarities in terms of the impact on youth in downturns and recessions, so we know that youth are more impacted in terms of employment. And that's been the same in the COVID recession, perhaps a different pattern as Simon mentioned, because of the way that industries have been affected by shutdowns and dealing with the global pandemic. But, what is different for Australia in this recession has been the pre-existing high youth unemployment rate that has been persistent since the GFC.

Steve Davis (00:37)
Hello and welcome to Vocational Voices, the official podcast of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research or NCVER for short. I'm Steve Davis and today's topic is VET's role in youth unemployment recovery. Our Vocational Voices today are Simon Walker, Managing Director NCVER. Simon.

Simon Walker (00:58)
Good morning, Steve.

Steve Davis (00:59)
Jo Waugh, Senior Research Officer, NCVER. Hello Jo.

Jo Waugh (01:03)
Hi Steve.

Steve Davis (01:04)
And, we also have Kira Clarke, Senior Research Fellow, Brotherhood of St Laurence. Hello, Kira.

Kira Clarke (01:10)
Hi Steve.

Steve Davis (01:11)
Welcome all to the podcast. Now, the Brotherhood of St. Laurence has put out some papers reporting on the ways COVID-19's impacted the lives, the education and career prospects of young people. One of the key findings is that people under 30 have largely put their lives on hold during the first 12 months of COVID restrictions, as they adapted to social and economic changes. For some, this has meant scaling down accommodation, or even moving back in with parents while drawing down on savings or superannuation. For those in secure employment, it's meant increased workloads and severe blurring of work-life balance.

Steve Davis (01:50)
For those who have lost work or have been looking for work during this time, post COVID recovery is going to be a fraught time, if Australia doesn't take a well structured pathway to recovery. And in this episode, we'll be looking at the role, the VET sector can and should play in the process.

Steve Davis (02:08)
But to get us underway, Kira, I'd like to start with you by having you dig just a little bit deeper into the findings, especially for that 15 to 24 year old cohort, because they were already experiencing educational marginalisation for a host of reasons. So, you can you fill in some of the detail for us if their plight.

Kira Clarke (02:29)
Yes, that's right, Steve. Heading into the COVID pandemic, the educational marginalisation of young people was shaped by several long-term and concerning trends, I think. There's been several years of stagnation in post-school education and training participation. We've seen declining training enrolment rates amongst 15 to 19 year olds who aren't at school. And, despite some more recent increases in participation by that 20 to 24 year old age group, there's been overall declining participation amongst the most disadvantaged young people. So, those young people from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds. Another dimension of the educational marginalisation already present as we headed into the pandemic was the social stratification of school completion. So, despite several years of increasing diversification of the offerings and what's available to young people in the senior years of schooling, we've seen school completion patterns be still very strongly tied to social backgrounds and location. There's actually a 10% variation in school completion between those from high and low socio-economic backgrounds. A longer-term trend that was very much shaping how young people were positioned heading into the pandemic is that over the last 30 years, we've seen much stronger employment growth in high-skilled occupations.

Kira Clarke (03:46)
For example, occupations that require a bachelor degree or higher accounted for 45% of total employment growth over the last 30 years, compared to only 9.4% employment growth for those jobs that require a certificate one or secondary education. So because of these trends, we know that young people staying on in education and training post school is crucial. But what we actually saw coming into the pandemic, when it comes to those young people who have turned to VET, completion rates have remained quite stubbornly low, sitting at or around 50% for 15 to 19, and 20 to 24 year olds. And, there's also a concerning misalignment between young people's training participation, so the types of jobs they're training for, the types of courses they're doing, and the job opportunities and demand in their local labor markets. We actually see around one in four VET graduates employed in the occupation associated with their qualification.

Kira Clarke (04:45)
So, where I think these patterns of educational marginalisation really start to bite, is how this positions young people in the labor market. While some young people were better placed than others heading into the pandemic, young people actually represent almost two thirds of workers in many of those really low skilled service occupations. This meant that for young people with low skills, limited experience and often precariously employed, when the pandemic hit, they were already vulnerable to that economic disruption, and didn't have the education and training foundation and skills to be mobile into other sectors.

Steve Davis (05:20)
Kira, that's quite a bleak background for this conversation. There's one other aspect though, and that is the dramatic shift to digital delivery of many services during COVID as well. If you just look at this cohort for a moment, has that been a blessing, or a curse or a little bit of both?

Kira Clarke (05:37)
Yeah. The shift to online access to services has definitely been a mixed bag for young people. For some, I think the shift to online has enabled them to stay engaged with service providers and with education and training. Speaking with a number of disadvantaged VET learners in Victoria at the height of the pandemic in July last year, it was clear that for many of them who had lost jobs and were otherwise isolated at home, their connection to training online was acting as a bit of an anchor. But for others, the shift to online created new barriers. For young people who only have access to the internet through mobile phone data, accessing materials, engaging in video-based sessions can be prohibitive.

Kira Clarke (06:17)
A successful shift to online delivery also requires young people to have quite a substantial set of digital skills, the accessing and navigating online spaces and processes. We also see that some jurisdictions, and some sectors and service providers were better prepared than others for this dramatic shift to online. So, I think the good examples the VET sector in 2017, while across the country VET delivered online made up 13% of all government funded provision. There was great variation with that accounting for 2% in Victoria, compared to 33% in New South Wales. So yes, there've been some benefits from the dramatic shift to digital delivery, but it's also reinforced several existing disadvantages and created some new challenges as well.

Steve Davis (07:06)
All right. Let's round off there, I guess, the bleak start to this as what Richard III said, "I'm in so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin." So, Simon Walker with that, can you just paint a picture from a statistical perspective with unemployment figures, especially around this COVID scenario?

Simon Walker (07:24)
Yeah, sure Steve. And, I will comment a little bit on the online delivery and update you on some data that we've just been analysing recently. So, clearly the impact of COVID on the population in general was profound in terms of employment but it did, as Kira's report has shown, disproportionately affect young people. And, what is a consistent theme in all this and is somewhat idiosyncratic to the COVID induced economic downturn is the nature of the industries and occupations that were more impacted. So, clearly the accommodation, food services, hospitality and retail sectors, because of their customer facing nature were more impacted than others.

Simon Walker (08:07)
And then certainly, in some sectors they actually grew. So, it's quite uneven and quite different from a general recession like the GFC, so that's probably worth saying. And of course, young people are overly represented as the report shows in some of those occupational areas. In terms of online delivery, we've just done some analysis on what happened in 2020. And, we only have data for government-funded activity, but it showed a dramatic rise and response, if you like from the VET sector to move to online because it had to. But, I think we need to differentiate between those people who already have a disadvantage, and the online learning doesn't necessarily suit those people. So in the broad, the assistance that needs to be provided, whether it's education or other assistance for people from a disadvantaged background, tends to have to be more personalised. And, I think that everyone would intuitively understand that.

Simon Walker (09:06)
And so, online learning was a fantastic response from the VET sector, it grew dramatically, but it won't suit everybody and in particular, those that need that extra assistance.

Steve Davis (09:17)
Jo, I'm turning to you now, because you co-authored the NCVER report that at the time that this episode goes to air it will have been released publicly, it's called What VET can offer to COVID-19 youth unemployment recovery. And, that draws on data from past economic downturns and recessions. So can we start, let's look at some of the similarities and the differences you found in those past experiences compared to COVID-19.

Jo Waugh (09:46)
Yeah, I think that Kira has touched on a lot of the similarities in terms of the impact on youth in downturns and recessions. So, we know that youth are more impacted in terms of employment, and that's been the same in the COVID recession. Perhaps a different pattern as Simon mentioned, because of the way the industries have been affected by shutdowns and dealing with the global pandemic. But, what is different for Australia in this recession has been the pre-existing high youth unemployment rate that has been persistent since the GFC. Coming into COVID, we had an... if you might call it a pre-existing youth unemployment issue. In doing this research, I started to look at VET approaches and policies that have worked to address those who are vulnerable to youth unemployment.

Steve Davis (10:38)
So Jo, that actually does give us a really interesting context there of the pre-existing condition, if you like, with not only unemployment, but underemployment. And so, if I just look more deeply into your report, there are three ways in which you've identified that the VET sector can play a role in averting or diminishing the damage from these scenarios. I'd like to look at them one at a time. So, the first one I'd like us to look at is the statement that vocational pathways in secondary school, they're going to be really important to set up these people to achieve success. Can you talk to that for us?

Jo Waugh (11:17)
Yeah. So, vocational pathways in schools can provide young people with a taste of different careers and open their eyes up to the possibilities. Often, if we're talking about disadvantaged youth, they can have very narrow views of what's possible and what's out there for them. So, having the opportunity to do some vocational training while they're at school just gives them a broader sense of what's out there for them, raises their aspirations and instills in them, the kind of intrinsic drive to seek something new.

Steve Davis (12:00)
Do we know if students who've done that transition to work in a smoother way?

Simon Walker (12:06)
Yeah. You would have remembered some of our previous podcasts, Steve, where we talked about VET in schools. And, picking up a little bit on what Kira said about the nature of what they're doing in schools and the occupations in demand, so there probably does need to be a better alignment between the offerings in schools and what the labor market's actually requiring. So a lot of it, you could argue, actually isn't very well aligned to the labor market and there are particular programs within schools that we know have very good outcomes. So, clearly apprenticeships, which are a very small part of VET in schools, but nonetheless, they have fantastic outcomes. Similarly, for other occupational areas, you could get a better employment outcome if you focus on the right course. So, there is a need to make sure you've got the right programs lined up with the labor market in a crude sense.

Jo Waugh (12:58)
Kira actually did some work on this back in 2013 in her entry to vocations research and found... Perhaps Kira can explain more about it, but found that for VET in schools completers, after school, they were found often be working in a similar casual, low skilled work that university students were undertaking. So, it's sometimes not the case that the vocational education in school experience is leading to opportunities in careers, where they can progress and develop their skills.

Kira Clarke (13:32)
We didn't see a lot of immediate labor market benefit from some of the VET in schools or vocational pathway in secondary school participation. So, I think it's really interesting in the way that it's framed, as more about giving young people a chance to be exposed to the different types of job pathways that are available to get a taste, as Jo said before, rather than as a direct ticket for entry to a specific occupation. We know that a lot of the qualifications undertaken by young people at school are still sort of towards the lower level of the qualification framework. So, positioning it as a stepping stone to further education and training post-school, I think we see a lot more success when it's used in that way, than when it's set up as an expectation for young people and their families as a ticket directly to a job.

Steve Davis (14:25)
Let's turn to the second of the three ways that were noted in this report. And, that way that was noted for how the VET sector can play a role in post COVID youth unemployment recovery is work-based training. Now, are we particularly talking about apprenticeships and traineeships here, or is there more to it, Jo?

Jo Waugh (14:44)
Yeah, so apprenticeships and traineeships is one type of work-based training, but it's not the only model that works. So we know that trade apprenticeships, in particular, have really strong employment outcomes and that's excellent. But, not all occupations and not all workplaces and organisations are suited to that particular model. So things like internships, work placements and even work experience can also lead to higher employment outcomes for young people.

Jo Waugh (15:14)
One of my colleagues, Kristen Osborne, recently published a report on work-based education in VET. And, that report goes through all the many benefits for young people who can do a taster of... Apply what they're learning while they're learning it, and that includes things like building a work history, building a sense of the occupational identity, and building the skills and knowledge in context, and getting an understanding of what employees expect from them and all those things, even if it doesn't lead immediately to an employment outcome, it makes them more employable as they're looking for work going forward.

Steve Davis (15:51)
Actually, before I turn to you Simon, there's something you just mentioned there about building a work history, Jo, that deals with that conundrum, where young people go for a job interview with no experience and they're expected to have experience. And of course, there's no way they would have had it, but this is one way in-between that. Simon.

Simon Walker (16:07)
I was just going to add, and it's a bit outside of the youth issue, but the push for more work integrated learning is bigger than just this particular issue. And, if you look recently at the Australian Industry Group report that looked at a reform for the skills or tertiary education more broadly, they have been making a push for far more immersive in the workplace learning, because they see that as being a best model. It doesn't have to be an apprenticeship and as Jo has pointed out, that could be anyone of a range of different activities. But, they see that both for VET and for higher education as being probably the best way forward to provide the best outcome for all those new recruits.

Steve Davis (16:50)
Kira, what are your thoughts on this issue of work-based training in this context?

Kira Clarke (16:55)
Yeah. I agree with Simon, we're seeing a lot of evidence both here in Australia of it's increasing importance. This is actually reminding me of some of the work that the European Vocational Research Centre CEDEFOP are doing around this idea of the pluralistic trends, where we see this blurring of the boundaries between general and vocational education and a big part of that is increasing prominence of work integrated learning. We're certainly seeing it in secondary education, where there's a big focus on getting young people into work placement, into work experience, not just to inform the sort of decisions they make about the training or careers they might pursue after school, but also to get a sense of what is it that employers are looking for. What does it take to be employable? What are some of those foundational or transversal skills?

Kira Clarke (17:44)
We're also seeing work integrated learning being increasingly important in university programs as well. And I think coming out of COVID, we're seeing a broad range of new models of workplace learning and work integrated learning, proposed cadetships, a sort of adaptive stackable approaches that the Brotherhood's using within the national youth employment body. So, I think this is actually quite an interesting time to see how employers and workplaces are being brought even more into the space of education and training, and playing a key role in supporting that transition from training to work.

Simon Walker (18:23)
Yeah, I was just going to add that one of the challenges here is, is getting awareness across businesses, that these models are possible. And, for them to have the wherewithal to be able to put something in place, there was an interesting comment in one of our previous reports talking about what they call higher apprenticeships, but essentially, diploma level work-based learning programs. And one of the reasons, one of the businesses used the traditional apprenticeship model was because it exists and they understand it. And, there was actually no other frameworks that they could rely on to be able to build a workplace culture of learning. So, it is an educative exercise as much as anything else.

Jo Waugh (19:03)
Yeah, definitely. And, it's worth acknowledging that it's not quite as simple as just setting up work-based training for many employers and training providers. There's some additional supports that are needed sometimes to support, particularly people who perhaps have been persistently unemployed, they have a whole range of issues that might be contributing to that. And, there's other supports around that are needed to help those sorts of approaches work. And, Kira might be able to speak a little bit more to this. I believe she's working on some evaluation of programs that target at risk youth.

Kira Clarke (19:37)
Yeah. As part of the National Youth Employment Body at the moment been undertaking the evaluation of an entry to work stackable skills trial in partnership with the Health Service Skills Organisation, which is one of the three pilots of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment. And, this is using a micro-credential, so a skillset that was approved through the emergency approval processes during the pandemic last year. And as its been mentioned, draws together, not just the training component and the employers, but also some of that broader wrap around support.

Kira Clarke (20:15)
We know that particularly for disadvantaged young people, it's not enough to just say, "Here's some training and here's a potential employer." The pathway needs to be structured and needs to be smooth. And that, as Simon identified, definitely raises challenges around combining different buckets of resourcing to bring those different parts of a structured workplace-based training opportunity together.

Steve Davis (20:42)
I'm also curious if anyone here has any insights on this, from an employer perspective, there are resources required to make this happen, and in this time of readjustment to the COVID interruptions, some of those resources will be under great stress and pressure. Is this just not going to happen because of absence or stress on resources, and it will stay as an academic thought or do we see more optimism?

Simon Walker (21:10)
I don't have a full answer to your question Steve, but it is a given or well understood, should I say, that larger enterprises have greater resources and greater wherewithal to be able to put a lot of these things in place. So, for small businesses, which are a larger part of the total employment, that's a struggle for them. They're very much concentrated on their business, and to put something in that they aren't used to or simply don't have large human resource departments, for example, is very, very difficult for them.

Steve Davis (21:40)
I'd like to move to the third role identified in this report that the VET sector can play in aiding youth unemployment recovery in a post pandemic world and that's career planning. Now I take it, Jo, this refers to more than your typical career guidance counsellor at school. I mean, they may well have changed. In my day, it was nothing more than writing down your top one, two or three preferred jobs. And because I knew I wanted to get into radio, I just put radio announcer, one, astronaut two, and president of the USA third, because I had no interest in the remaining two. Now, that could well be the privilege of the past, where there was a confidence that I was going to move forward and just walk into a role. What are we talking about with this particular strategy?

Jo Waugh (22:22)
I think that possibly not much has changed since your experience. In some cases, I think a lot of the career counselling that goes on today is delivered by school teachers who perhaps understandably don't have a great understanding of the range of different occupations that are available now. And that in order to deliver excellent career advice, that's individualised and really focuses in on what the individual's interests are and what their personal goals are, we'd need to have career counsellors who are really experts in the workforce, and have a great understanding of what's possible out there, and what are pathways into those different occupations and not just pushing the traditional pathways.

Steve Davis (23:20)
So this is where the role is for the VET sector to be providing these humans, who can bring that sort of wherewithal, that sort of knowledge to the game?

Jo Waugh (23:30)
I'm not sure that it's the VET sector's role entirely to provide that resource. And, I'm going to say I don't think it's a role for school teachers either, because they have enough on their plates and I'm not actually sure where that resource could come from. That's something I don't have an answer to, but Simon, you might.

Simon Walker (23:48)
Oh, look, I don't have an answer to it. But, if we look at the other strategies that Jo identified in the report, exposure to industry employers, work placements, that is all part of the career development experience and so, done well. And, there are some excellent models in high schools of VET done very, very well. And, you'll find that those things are pretty much prevalent across all the best practice schools is in a sense, just direct engagement with the world of work and the world of VET.

Steve Davis (24:18)
What do you think, Kira, in this aspect of career planning, what needs to happen? Is it possible that it might happen?

Kira Clarke (24:26)
I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful. I think, if we position the strengthening of careers education approaches within this COVID context, developing solutions to youth unemployment is not something that one sector, or one type of service provider or practitioner can do alone. This is really an all hands on deck challenge. And, I think it's the collaborative solutions that are needed and that are most effective. So, where someone tasked with the careers advice, or career education role is working in collaborative partnership with training providers, with employers, with employment service providers like transition to work, to actually provide, not just one type of information or opportunity, but that access to the real world of work. And also, an understanding of the long-term opportunities.

Kira Clarke (25:17)
So I think historically and unfortunately, maybe still to this day, a lot of the focus is on a specific end goal occupation, and not necessarily on creating visibility of the entry to that industry steps that are needed over the long-term to get to a potential long-term career, dream career, dream job. So, it's about how to bring those different actors together to support not just that vertical career trajectory, but also some mobility horizontally within an industry when young people may change their minds or decide to shift based on a little bit of experience.

Steve Davis (25:56)
So Kira, is that what you were alluding to before in anything as far as career guidance is concerned, is about a holistic suite or palette of experiences, of skills, of mindsets that could set someone up, not for a specific job, but to be a useful resource in the economic sector using this core grouping of skills?

Kira Clarke (26:25)
Yeah. So, we certainly need to support young people in ways that make visible the first steps, so that entry to work, what is the way into a particular occupation and into an industry. But also, make visible and support movement through to high level occupations, high-level career outcomes. And, I think just considering the type of resources and information that out there, we're often focusing on one or either ends of the end goal, the higher level occupation, or sort of the low skill, entry level occupation, and not what it looks like to move vertically and horizontally between those points.

Simon Walker (27:06)
Yeah. I was going to say just partly based on my own experience that the idea that you would focus specifically on one job and set everything against that goal, including the training, or the education you do after school or whatever, probably needs to be dispelled if that's, I think, what you're talking about. The reality is once you're in the labor market, particularly in a full-time capacity, things change, your interests change, opportunities arise. And I think people, particularly young people, need to understand that those opportunities don't disappear the moment you finish your education, in fact, arguably, they increase. So, not to get too fixated on a specific outcome as a 16 year old, I think would be a good thing. So, we've looked at vocational pathways, we've looked at work-based training and career planning as three ways in which a VET sector can help with post COVID unemployment and the recovery of youth therein.

Steve Davis (28:01)
Final thoughts from each of you for people in government who might be listening in to this podcast, what would you like them to have as their takeaway? What things should they be thinking about, so that Australia can make some sure and steady steps in the right direction. Simon, shall I start with you?

Simon Walker (28:20)
Well, I want to concentrate on one sector here, and that is the people who are from the disadvantaged backgrounds. And, there needs to be a special intervention for people with either socio-economic and demographic disadvantage. It's clear from all research that's ever been done that you can't have a one size fits all approach for that particular cohort in particular. And in the main, it has to be far more personalised than it sometimes is, so that would be one area where I think a lot of focus could go.

Steve Davis (28:52)
Jo, what sort of message would you like people with their hands on the levers of power to take away?

Jo Waugh (28:58)
Well, one thing I found in doing the literature review for this research and that was a review of international literature and Australian literature was, there was very little in the way of true evaluations of VET programs and policies, and that made it difficult to understand what actually did have an impact on youth employability after the completion of training. So, one thing I'd like policy makers to think about is thinking about evaluation from the outset and what are the clear goals and targets for programs. And, another thing is to think about putting in place longer-term solutions, piloting things in places, in regions, and then looking to evaluate before they expand that out. And take things slowly, because these aren't easy solutions, they're complicated. And, if you're going to coordinate all the different services that are needed for good outcomes, it does take time to pull that together. And, it takes time for it to get going and work, but once it does, you tend to see really good outcomes.

Steve Davis (30:06)
And Kira, we opened with you and you've got the last say, what would you like to see?

Kira Clarke (30:11)
There are so many things that I think, there is a role for government to play in this. And as I said before, this is really is... Youth unemployment post-COVID is an all hands on deck challenge, and collaborative solutions are what's needed. And, I think government at all levels has a role to play in being part of place-based local collaborative efforts, federal, state, territory and local.

Kira Clarke (30:34)
In terms of the sorts of things that I think we'd like to see to enable this work at the government level, at sort of a federal level, it would be government adopting a multi-system approach to addressing youth unemployment, understanding the need for training, employment services, careers to come together to help address some of the key structural barriers. So VET specifically, I'd like to see training course development and accreditation sort of more decentralised to really reflect, and represent the needs of local industry and local employers, and being strongly informed by local cross-sectoral collaboration.

Steve Davis (31:14)
Kira Clarke from Brotherhood of St Lawrence, thank you.

Kira Clarke (31:17)
Thank you, Steve.

Steve Davis (31:19)
Jo Waugh, NCVER, thank you.

Jo Waugh (31:20)
Thank you.

Steve Davis (31:21)
And Simon Walker, as always, thanks for being here.

Simon Walker (31:23)
Thanks Steve.

Steve Davis (31:26)
Vocational Voices is produced by NCVER, on behalf of the Australian government and state and territory governments with funding provided through the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment. For further information, please visit