In just over a year's time, legislation that requires all 17-year- olds to stay in education or training, even if they are in work, comes into force. But its rationale has taken a blow after a study of young people's choices in education and the labour market found that teenagers in jobs without training tend to earn as much and stay as employable as those on vocational courses at work.
The study, by the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions for the Department for Education, examined three sets of data for 16 to 19-year- olds in England and the UK between 1991 and 2008. It found that taking a job without training is as likely to lead to long-term employment as full- time education or a job with training. In the short term, pay is higher in jobs without training, though these teenagers are also at greater risk of becoming unemployed in the first two years.
"Young people who leave school and enter jobs without training at age 1617, 1718 or 1819 are at no greater risk of being unemployed five or 10 years down the line as compared to either young people who stay on in full-time education (without work), or indeed young people who move into jobs with training," the study's authors concluded. They acknowledge that some of those who undergo training may have the chance to develop to higher-level skills and greater earning potential, which was not examined in this study.
The authors also acknowledge that the data does not include most of the effects of the recent recession, which has seen youth unemployment rise to one in five under-25s and jobs with or without training become much more scarce. But the authors said their conclusions could offer a guide to the effects of raising the participation age on young people's future employability, arguing that requiring formal training would only help if it led to proven qualifications such as apprenticeships.
And it offers some support for Professor Alison Wolf's attack on raising the participation age, which she said would make young people too expensive for employers to hire, while adding pound;580 million to the cost of public education, according to National Audit Office estimates.
"This will have a devastating effect on the youth labour market and on the skills and future employability of many young people. The greatest losers are likely to be the most marginal and disadvantaged," Professor Wolf wrote in 2008. "Employment breeds employment just as unemployment breeds unemployment. There is a wealth of evidence on this point, as there is on the value of `ordinary' jobs in developing skills through informal on-the- job training."
While the Coalition has decided to suspend the power to prosecute young people for failing to attend classes, it is less clear how employers who refuse to allow teenagers time off for training would be treated. The Education Act 2011 only says that the power to prosecute employers "may be affected".
"For some young people, the most important issue is to get and keep a job," said Sarah Finnegan-Dehn, vice-president of the Institute of Career Guidance. "Previously, this route has enabled young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those not academically inclined to get a toehold in the labour market.
"Unfortunately, the current economic climate and government policy on remaining in learning until 18 will not provide many opportunities of this type in future."
Even prior to the recession the UK was bucking the trend of most developed countries, where the proportion of teenagers out of work and education was falling. In 2008, 9.6 per cent of UK teenagers were out of education and employment against an average for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries of under 7 per cent. And the study showed that those out of work and education tended to stay out: almost half of those unemployed and without a training course at 16 or 17 were in the same situation a year later.
Unsurprisingly, the study found the least deprived students were most likely to stay in education. But it also found parental attitudes were significant. Teenagers whose parents think it is important to get a job with a "trade" or an apprenticeship or vocational training were much more likely to take a job with training, rather than pursuing full-time study or taking a job without training.
"Young people whose parents have progressed successfully through education or training and a career at least have a role model and a possible route map, so they have a big advantage," Ms Finnegan-Dehn said. "But for other young people without such role models, it is important that good career guidance gives them broader horizons and the ability to see that it is possible to achieve more than they had thought possible."
- Sixteen to 19-year-olds who take jobs without training are no more likely to be unemployed after 10 years than those who stayed in education or took jobs with training.
- Half of 16 to 17-year-olds out of education or employment are in the same situation a year later.
- Girls are more likely to stay in full-time education, but if they enter the labour market they are more likely to be in jobs without training.
- Eighteen to 19-year-olds who are out of work or education are 20 percentage points more likely to be unemployed 10 years later.
Original headline: `Ordinary' jobs hold their own against education and training