10 Key Takeaways from the OECD Conference “Disrupted Futures 2023”

Jul 4 / Svenja Ohlemann and Kevin Hempel

Source: OECD

The OECD “Disrupted Futures” conference brought together leading researchers and practitioners in the field of career guidance. What are the major trends, issues, and future directions? This article highlights 10 key takeaways, including about starting career guidance early in life, career competences, challenging gender stereotypes, and thinking in systems.
Across the globe, we see a growing urgency to reduce disadvantages in school-to-work transitions and prevent young people from becoming NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training). Because of the COVID-pandemic, young people in many countries missed out on career-relevant information and work-related exploration opportunities. A major challenge for the coming years will therefore be to re-engage youth with the world of work and towards actively shaping their own future. One could call it the “big catch-up” in career orientation.

From May 31 - June 2, international researchers and practitioners gathered at this year’s OECD "Disrupted futures 2023" virtual conference to share and discuss their findings on challenges and requirements for successful career transitions (you can find the detailed program and session recordings here). We participated in almost all of the sessions and wanted to share some of our learnings with the broader career guidance community that may not have been able to attend. In summary, the conference highlighted that recent studies on career education and development are consistent with previous research, and that there is visible common ground in the community on major issues and future directions.
Here are our 10 key takeaways.

1. There are strong inequalities in teenage career development and readiness.

A key theme throughout the conference was that young people’s career development opportunities are highly uneven depending on their socio-economic status. In addition to having less access to relevant career information and opportunities from the start due to, for example, their parents' lower levels of education and networks, students from disadvantaged backgrounds often also have less access to specific career development activities. The OECD presented forthcoming research using PISA and PIAAC data which shows that students with high socioeconomic status are significantly more likely to have participated in a range of career exploration activities, such as talking to an advisor, attending a job fair, or doing an internship. As a result, disadvantaged students commonly have a poorer understanding of educational options and the labor market, are less certain about their future careers, and have fewer career ambitions. Career guidance offered through schools and other channels must therefore seek to reduce these inequalities.

2. Career development is not a one-time shot.

The results presented by Elizabeth Knight, Shuyan Huo, and Melissa Tham (from CIRES and Victoria University) confirm and complement earlier studies and established theories that developing career readiness is a developmental process over years. As Jared Chung from CareerVillage put it, the development of career competency is “like a muscle” that needs regular training: time and opportunities to explore, plan, take action, reflect, and to start over. Accordingly, conference speakers discussed the need to start this process in lower secondary or even as early as primary school when occupational preferences start to be formed. Hence, starting career education in higher secondary school, as commonly practiced, is too late. Moreover, career learning opportunities should be designed as building blocks with a long-term perspective and be systematically linked to each other.

3. Thinking beyond professional orientation.

One common denominator among the participants of the conference was the perspective on career guidance as more than finding a suitable profession.Career guidance and education aim to build career competencies which are more than the ability to find a job and knowing about the world of work. Career competencies enable a person to navigate the world of work throughout one's professional career. They are vital to adapt one's professional life according to changing personal circumstances and priorities as well as to changing external factors such as technological innovations. Hence, career competencies include socioemotional skills such as self-awareness, problem solving, stress management, and planning, as well as critical knowledge about the education and training system and entry conditions into specific jobs. It is therefore no surprise that modern career development such as the one of Beacon Foundation start with (self) awareness-building activities. Similarly, the multi-country “Careers around me” project has identified six career learning areas.

4. The role of “critical consciousness” in career guidance activities.

Several speakers at the conference (incl. Matt Diemer, Tristram Hooley, Marcelo Afonso Ribeiro) talked about the role of developing “critical consciousness”, i.e. the ability to reflect and act on one’s socio-political environment, in helping disadvantaged young people prepare for their future. The main argument is that reflecting on existing injustices, developing the belief that one can address these injustices and engaging in concrete ways to tackle them, can help youth find purpose and gain more agency through a better understanding that their life outcomes are not predetermined. As a result, the value of further education and job success becomes more apparent in order to break up and out of existing inequalities.

5. Importance of challenging gender stereotypes.

There is a growing recognition globally that occupational choice is strongly influenced by gender stereotypes and that this is problematic both for individuals and society. At the individual level, for example,  this can lead to a narrower set of (perceived) career options which may not be aligned with one’s real interests and skills (fueling lower satisfaction in professional life), limited economic opportunities (e.g. women who are not pursuing better paid “male” professions), and rejection from peers and society when pursuing nontraditional fields (incl. for men in traditional feminized fields). At societal level, gendered occupational choices are increasingly raising concerns due to labor shortages in selected fields (e.g., care jobs, STEM), and weaker employment outcomes for certain groups, including women. The role of early career guidance in counteracting some of these stereotypes is therefore an increasingly urgent question for policymakers and practitioners. Conference speakers from South Africa and New Zealand discussed the topic of attracting more women to careers in the construction field (which, in both countries, is experiencing a shortage of skilled workers). They made it crystal clear that challenging stereotypes is no simple task, as it must take into account a broad range of factors that influence students’ career preferences and choices, including a realistic understanding about the respective profession, perceptions of different industries by family, peers, and teachers/counselors, as well as self-confidence to challenge the status-quo. That said, by creating a proper ecosystem for career development educators, involving relevant stakeholders such as families, and applying an appropriate mix of career development tools, such as self-reflection, exposure to role models, and experiential learning, one can successfully tackle existing stereotypes and encourage students to pursue non-traditional study fields and job opportunities.

6. Growing role of digital tools. 

Digital technologies are transforming how we learn and work, and career education is no exception. Technologies such as video conferencing, virtual reality or gamification are being used to make career guidance accessible to a wider range of students and amplify access to career information. One exciting example presented at the conference was CareerVillage, an online platform where students can get personalized career advice from professionals (volunteers). Founder Jared Chung showed how this micro-mentoring platform can dramatically expand the reach of career guidance activities, having leveraged over 125,000 professionals to provide career advice to over 7 million students since 2011. That said, Jared also recognized that further research is needed to better understand the effects of online advising on career development outcomes. Another initiative featured at the conferences was the BECOME Careers Education program, which helps students explore a wide range of occupations and develop an understanding and interest beyond the narrow set of 5-10 occupations that most students traditionally aspire to. For an overview of many other examples, have a look at the OECD’s new “Observatory on Digital technologies in Career guidance for Youth (ODiCY)”, a repository on the use of digital technologies in career education and guidance by primary and secondary schools. 

7. Work experience placements are crucial, but they must be properly set up to be successful.

The conference underlined the growing consensus that practical exposure to the world of work should be a key ingredient of career guidance activities during formal education. For instance, a recent evidence review of work experience practices (typically a few days up to 1-2 weeks) for youth aged 11-16 in developed countries showed short-term gains, such as improvements in students’ self-confidence and career awareness, as well as longer-term benefits, such as improved access to higher education and a lower likelihood of becoming NEET. Based on these results, organizations like Speakers for Schools in the UK are advocating for making work experience placements accessible to all students. That said, discussions at the conferences also highlighted that the benefits of short work experiences are not automatic and that they are contingent on quality implementation, such as adequate preparation and ex-post reflection as well as proper matching of placements to students’ interests.
Moreover, it is usually better to have several small work experiences over time (as opposed to just one), so that students can explore different career options and become more aware of their interests and strengths. Another important lesson is that when finding placements is largely left to students and their families (rather than facilitated by the school), there is a strong tendency to exacerbate existing inequalities, as students from more affluent backgrounds tend to have access to a wider range of networks across high status professions compared to their disadvantaged peers.

8. Parents are key stakeholders in the career decision making process and for career satisfaction.

Internationally, the great impact of parents and family on the individual career choice and career satisfaction of young people is evident. Recent findings by Elizabeth Knight, Shuyan Huo, and Melissa Tham (Mitchell Institute, Victoria University) confirm the influential role of parents and family beyond career decisions per se, including on later career satisfaction. Consequently, supporting and informing parents is critical. Important aspects that parents should know about include the inner workings of the education and training system, transition opportunities and important time windows, as well as ways in which parents can support their own child in making a successful post-school transition. We expect that there will be an increased focus on parents as a target group in future career education activities.

9. Successful career education is achieved through strong local networks.

We have already highlighted the important role of parents in the career decision-making process and pointed out that leaving career guidance to parents will reinforce inequality due to their unequal career knowledge and resources. Similarly, educators, the majority of whom have never worked outside education, need additional support from external partners. Multi-stakeholder-approaches help create optimal conditions for healthy development of youth and successful career transitions. They consist of collaborations, partnerships, and systematic (knowledge) exchange within local networks: parents, educators, multiple schools, sports associations, and local businesses. Involving a wide range of stakeholders is also seen positively by students. For instance, findings from South Africa presented at the conference suggest that professionals who gave career talks were a more trusted source of information than educators and career guidance staff. We anticipate that the perspective on career education and guidance will shift from a task within a single school to a collaborative effort of multiple local schools, career counselors, local businesses, and other community members to provide strong career guidance in their city or region.

10. Systems matter.

While quality career education ultimately rests on the shoulders of committed teachers and counselors, career guidance should not simply be left to the discretion of each school. Instead, it should be anchored within the education system. Clearly, having flexibility at the school level is important to allow for innovation and continuous improvement, but there also needs to be a guiding framework that indicates minimum standards in career education across all schools. Usually, this would include defining intended learning outcomes as well as guidelines for a career guidance curriculum (e.g., within existing subjects, separate classes, extracurricular) that should take place at each level of education. During the conference, the European Training Foundation shared some of its recent analysis of career guidance systems in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. For instance, Armenia’s new state standard for general education (2021) introduces learning outcomes related to career education for elementary, middle and high school (from basic knowledge about different professions to having a refined idea about preferred profession), and defines concrete activities to achieve these outcomes, such as a mandatory career guidance club in middle school and an individual career path research project in grade 11. Similarly, Serbia has adopted “Standards for Career Guidance and Counselling Services” that define not only standards for career management skills, but also for career guidance programs and practitioners’ competences.  However, the implementation of career education activities in Serbian primary and secondary schools is largely part of non-mandatory and extracurricular activities, hence not reaching all students. 
About the authors:

Svenja Ohlemann is Founder and CEO of Ohlemann Bildung & Beratung, an organization that promotes successful post-school transitions. Ohlemann Bildung & Beratung consults government ministries and schools on education innovation and career guidance, and empowers adolescents with its personalized online career readiness program. You can follow her on LinkedIn.

Kevin Hempel is the Founder and Managing Director of Prospera Consulting, a boutique consulting firm working towards stronger policies and programs to facilitate the labor market integration of disadvantaged groups. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.