The first empirical analysis of the data from this project has just been published in the Journal of Sociology, in a special issue on ‘Gendered and generational inequalities in the gig economy’. This paper, entitled ‘Making Pathways? A mixed methods analysis of young women who have left school early in ‘the new work order’ is written together with Dr Brendan Churchill (University of Melbourne) and combines the interview data from the first round of interviews from this project with survey data from the HILDA household panel study. This approach enables us to consider the interview findings in light of the broader patterns and developments for young women who have left school without Year 12 qualifications.  

The paper investigates how young women who have left school early fare in what we term ‘the new work order’. This refers to a labour market that is said to value entrepreneurialism and innovative mindsets. It is also a labour market that is increasingly casualised and with few provisions for job security. These conditions have affected young people’s employment in particular, with full-time employment going down and part-time employment increasing. Many of the jobs that young people would traditionally hold are evaporating due to structural changes in the labour market, posing challenges for young people without post-school qualifications in particular.

What becomes clear through the analyses is that there is both a perceived and a real tension in terms of what has value in the labour market and this means that ‘making pathways’ for oneself was not straightforward. The majority of the participants saw formal (educational) qualifications as important for their chances in the labour market, and they were leaning towards programmes with practical components teaching ‘real’ skills, as these were seen as the most valuable.

However, this focus on ‘real’ skills also seemed to explain why some participants saw a relevant job as having more value for their future careers than some educational certificate. In the article we argue that this tension might be a result of conflicting messages from on the one hand policy-makers pushing an education discourse (‘education as the key to prosperous futures’), and on the other hand family and employers emphasising the value of ‘experience’.

This tension is not only perceived. The quantitative analysis also demonstrates a tension between work experience and educational qualifications in terms of employment outcomes. For young women without Year 12 qualifications, the chances for obtaining full time employment increase more with work experience than with a certificate-level qualification.

In contrast, the chances for part-time employment are higher with certificate-level qualifications. In contrast to certificates, a diploma level qualification seems to have significantly better labour market outcomes. In sum, the tension that the paper reveals mean that making choices and trying to plan a career for oneself is a difficult process and that few of the options available to these young women are straightforward.

The conclusions in this paper also raise some questions to investigate in the future. First, once all waves of interviews are completed it will be possible to conduct a longitudinal analysis of at how the participants’ plans at the time of the first interview play out over the following years and how they ‘make pathways’ over time.

Second, it is important to unpack the reasons that the participants have for leaving school in the first place and how these relate to their wider school experiences. The analysis in this paper demonstrated that not continuing with one’s studies could also be an active choice, made because other options seemed more favourable. The interview data more broadly suggest that leaving school early is not simply a matter of ‘not making it’ in academic terms but an event that needs to be situated in its full context.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

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