A long-term study which looked at the transition from education to work found that most young people left school without knowing how to find their way in the world. Unemployment was common.
Researchers from Glasgow University and the University of Ulster say: "Most young people lack knowledge of the ways in which labour markets operate and few have clear ideas about how they can manage their transition from school to work in an effective manner. An initial period of 'floundering' is commonplace."
The Scottish Executive-supported study, Youth Transitions: Patterns of Vulnerability and Processes of Social Inclusion, found that young people try hard to find work but that their efforts are often unfocused. The way in which they manage transitions is described as "opportunism" rather than "strategic planning".
"However, once they gain a toe-hold in the labour market, they develop in skills and confidence. Moves to other jobs become easier and they are better equipped to cope with unexpected disruptions. In time, many learn to identify career and training opportunities as they arise and reframe their own aspirations accordingly," the researchers state.
The report was based on a longitudinal survey of 15-29s in the greater Glasgow area. A representative sample of more than 1,000 15-year-olds and their parents took part in the first round of interviews in 1987.
They were interviewed again at the ages of 16, 18, 21 and 23. Interviews with a cross-section found that those who did not have good qualifications and marketable skills have the most difficulties and are vulnerable to long or repeated periods of unemployment.
The team says that excluded and vulnerable young people need more educational opportunities, along with a reduction in levels of family poverty and neighbourhood deprivation.
"Unemployed young people rarely lacked the determination to find work or were waiting to fulfil unrealistic aspirations," they state. "Most went to great lengths to find work and tended to downgrade their aspirations relatively quickly, even if they had invested heavily in training and skill development. Indeed, most of those who encountered long-term and repeated unemployment were not 'unemployable' and had previously held jobs, sometimes for lengthy periods."
The researchers add: "With virtually all young people interviewed strongly committed to securing and maintaining fulfilling employment, the need to underpin the benefit system so explicitly with the threat of sanctions would appear to be unnecessary. The evidence suggests that withdrawal of benefits is itself associated with exclusion."
The findings suggest that if young people are to be more successful in finding work they have to improve their qualifications and vocational skills. Families continue to be an important help and a source of contacts for many.
Schools can also do more to identify and re-engage young people who are drifting.
The researchers call for an attitude change towards training by young people and employers. "Aside from the larger companies, firms tended not to provide young people with core transferable skills and most provided minimal training," they state.
Too many schemes are not geared to young people who often end up in occupational areas they have no real interest in.
Leader 26 Youth Transitions: Patterns of Vulnerability and Processes of Social Inclusion is on the Scottish Executive publications website.