The idea of a career pathway is not new, but in some cases there's a distinct lack of structure between the training and education system and the skills needed for jobs offered by industry. How can students make choices that will bridge this gap?
There are some educational outcomes that are tightly tied to occupations and there are others that will give students the right skills, but may only be loosely connected to a career pathway. Career pathways for the former situation are often guided by professional associations and their strategic links to educational institutes and government: think nursing, engineering, accounting. Those students who choose to pursue a career in the latter category, however, often emerge confused from study, unsure of where their new qualification will take them.
In hindsight it's easy to see how a qualification can be precursor to a certain kind of career. An events manager, for example, may have picked up her skills in one of a few areas such as events or project management, hospitality or marketing, even though only the event management qualification provides a direct pathway to an event management career. The question students should be asking is whether enrolling in a course with a broad range of outcomes is a good idea.
Researchers from RMIT University and the University of Melbourne released a paper entitled 'Missing links: the fragmented relationship between tertiary education and jobs' that attempts to get to the root of the link between education and industry. The paper specifically focused on the role of educational institutions in fostering vocations, including "how to improve occupational outcomes and educational pathways within VET, and between VET and higher education".
In essence, the researchers found that pathways from education to careers are largely unclear: "educational pathways are fragmented, labour market pathways are segmented, and that this fragmentation and segmentation also reflects the relationship between educational and labour market pathways. Moreover, policy attempts to improve the link between post-compulsory education and work are very partial, uneven and poorly structured."
The research compared Anglophone countries (Australia, the UK and the USA), which have liberal economies where "graduates need similar, broad knowledge and skills to compete with each other" and "tend to have loose relations between education and work" with their Northern European counterparts. By contrast, Northern Europe had more coordinated market economies that "use social partnerships between employers, unions, government and education to match graduates and jobs". Consequently, "there are much tighter links between education and work because of this relationship" and "each has a good understanding of the other and their requirements".
That Australia has a quality education system is not in doubt. The real disconnect comes from the findings that show how the VET curriculum "reflects the content of the qualification, [but] doesn't characterise the relationship between the qualification and work, which is regulated by markets". Attempts thus far to bridge this gap have focused on the VET side with education reform after education reform designed to close the gap. The authors suggest, however, that much needs to be done on the industry side to provide career certainty.
Vertical and horizontal education
The best picture the paper could paint of the situation was in further education. In cases where students had more than one qualification, the difference between career pathways was clear: where education and industry were closely linked (employment led), the student's second qualification was more likely to build on the skills from the first, but where education and industry ties were loose (education led), the second qualification was likely to be in the same field but complementary rather than a continuation of the first.
This means in some industries a student can target a specific occupation and undergo study to fit the role whereas in others the student must target the industry and hope that the skills with which they emerge will fit a role in it. The benefits of the former are a more direct match between skills, outcomes and a career path, but if there are no jobs when the student graduates it is harder to find a complementary area of employment.
The opposite is true for an education-led approach where the student emerges with capabilities that are retrofitted to certain roles. The result is not a perfect match, hence the potential need to undergo further study in a related field to pick up the skills that are wanting. However, the approach is more versatile and can be a good way for students who have broad interests to find their calling throughout their studies or on the job.
The paper thus suggests the need for vocational 'streams', which would act as a career guide without restricting the student to specific occupations. "Vocational streams are not tightly defined by individual jobs, but consist of linked occupations within broad fields of practice, and in turn, each occupation leads to a number of jobs," the paper concludes. "Individuals need capabilities that allow them to move vertically and horizontally within vocational streams, rather than the knowledge and skills for a specific job."
The moral of the story? Study with a career in mind but don't expect the qualification alone to deliver you to an occupation. Capabilities become the currency to lead you to a spectrum of roles.
Download the paper 'Missing links: the fragmented relationship between tertiary education and jobs' by Leesa Wheelahan, Mary Leahy, Nick Fredman, Gavin Moodie, Sophie Arkoudis, Emmaline Bexley.
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