School-to-Work Transition

Most people will encounter the developmental task of making the transition from school to work, as the assumption of the worker role is one of the hallmarks of adulthood. However, the school-to-work transition generally refers to the transition made by those youth who are moving directly from high school to work, frequently with minimal support. Because it is a part of the adolescent-to-adult transition, the move from school to work presents the individual with several challenges and opportunities. Because it is integral to the mission of the central social institutions of education and employment, the school-to-work transition is also a major policy and reform issue.

School to Work as a Developmental Transition

Transitions of any type bring with them periods of uncertainty and stress. In the transition from school to work, that stress is exacerbated by the fact that work is necessary to meet basic survival needs. In the United States, youth who do not attend college are more likely to be unemployed or to be employed in transient jobs with little opportunity for advancement. The lack of a college education results in significant decreases in lifetime earnings as well. These issues are particularly problematic for youth who are African American, Hispanic, and American Indian, all of whom have substantially higher unemployment rates, lower college attendance rates, and lower high school graduation rates than do White Americans.

A primary task of this time of transition is to develop the skills necessary to be an effective worker. Historically, this has involved learning specific skills related to trades or occupations and then moving into an entry-level job for which one has specifically prepared, similar to the training of an apprentice. However, in the current labor market, occupation-specific skills are often not as critical as transferable work skills. Employers report that they are seeking workers with broad skills in reading, writing, math, and communication (listening and speaking); the ability to work well with others, be creative, solve problems, and be organized; and an attitude of responsibility, self-management, and integrity.

This set of skills provides a foundation from which potential employees can learn job-specific skills more readily. It also emphasizes the need for career counselors to prepare students to be work ready rather than job ready. This need is reinforced by the reality that most people will change jobs multiple times over the course of their lives, leading many career theorists to point out that the most important task of career counseling may be to prepare young workers to be adaptable to changing labor and market demands. Essentially, the task of this developmental transition is to assume the skills and attitudes necessary to negotiate a rapidly changing work environment.

School to Work as a Policy and Reform Initiative

In response to a landmark report published in 1998 by the William T. Grant Foundation, The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success for America’s Youth and Young Families, educators and policy makers began to look closely at the needs of work-bound or non-college-bound youth and determined that the school-to-work transition in the United States was in significant need. In fact, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall remarked, in the early 1990s, that America had the worst school-to-work transition process of any of the industrialized nations. In contrast to other countries, particularly in Europe, that provide structured apprenticeship models to transition youth into work, the United States has very few services in place for work-bound youth, resulting in longer periods of struggle with part-time, low-paying jobs. In fact, work-bound youth receive approximately 10% of the values of services that college-enrolled youth receive.

Policy efforts to address the concerns raised in The Forgotten Half resulted in federal legislation, the School to Work Opportunities Act (STWOA) of 1994, that codified several major components of school-to-work programs. The STWOA provided block grants for states to design school-to-work programs that included the following components: school-based learning, workplace-based learning, an integration of the two through coordinated efforts between teachers and employers, and stakeholder support in the form of parents, community groups, employers, and other concerned parties. From these grants emerged a number of types of school-to-work programs, including tech preps, career academies, occupation-academic cluster programs, school-based enterprise, cooperative education, and youth apprenticeship programs. The initiation of STWOA programs was not without controversy, however. Several states ultimately passed laws that banned or modified school-to-work programs as described in the federal guidelines.

Evaluations of the federally funded school-to-work programs have provided mixed findings. Several evaluations of single programs (i.e., programs in a single school district) have suggested that students who participate in a school-to-work programs are more likely to earn better grades, complete more high school credits, and attend college than those who do not participate. This finding has been more robust for boys than it has been for girls. Large evaluation studies of the impact of STWOA legislation have suggested that only a small number of students have actually been able to complete the linked school-work activities that STWOA intended to provide. However, there is also evidence that participation in work-related activities did increase among work-bound youth who participate in school-to-work programs.

Effective School-to-Work Programs

Several challenges to establishing effective school-to-work programs have been identified: workplace learning requires significant support from school staff, accompanied by expense to the schools; employers who are willing to assume some of the costs for school-to-work programs may not benefit if participants decide to go on to college, thus reducing employer motivation to participate; and workplace activities and academic success sometimes conflict with each other, particularly in terms of time demands.

Successful school-to-work programs have several characteristics that allow them to address these challenges. First, they gather input from a number of local constituents, including employers and parents, to meet the needs of local students. Second, school personnel are invested and the program is integrated into the school environment. Similarly, employers who are invested early are more likely to continue as partners, even if some students do not remain on as full-time employees. Finally, there is some indication that beginning career activities early in elementary school contributes to greater success, as does developing a school-work curriculum that is strong enough to prepare participants for both 2- and 4-year colleges.

Future Directions

Although legislative attention to the school-to-work transition and the needs of work-bound youth has diminished, the needs of the population remain significant. For example, work-bound youth continue to earn significantly less income than do those who go to college. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2005 that the mean income for earners of the bachelor’s degree was $51,206, those with high school diplomas earned $27,915, and those who did not graduate from high school earned an average of $18,734. Furthermore, the Economic Policy Institute reported that approximately 33% of workers with a high school diploma were not covered by health insurance in 2005, compared to approximately 18% of those with college degrees.

Of course, economic outcomes are not the only evidence of work or career success. Nonetheless, these indicators make it clear that greater attention must be paid to a successful school-to-work transition for youth who are most likely to be disadvantaged and are ultimately most likely to stay in a less advantaged state as they mature. Continued attention to career and vocational education, leading to the development of effective work readiness strategies, is essential to meaningful education reform and to the well-being of workers in the United States.


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