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COVID-19 and Disadvantaged Young People’s Education and Employment Aspirations: A Longitudinal Study of Young People’s Transitions in Geelong

The UNEVOC Centre at the School of Education, RMIT University has been funded for the next three years to deliver an applied research project which aims: To provide Geelong stakeholders with a strong evidence base over 3 years to co-design innovative interventions to foster the education and employment aspirations of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in Geelong in the wake of a COVID-19 youth labour market crisis.

This project is funded by a grant from the Anthony Costa Foundation.

Project Background

The project emerges from the work that the UNEVOC Centre has been undertaking over the last 12-24 months, including an earlier blog post titled: Disruption and Crisis, Aspiration, and Hope: COVID-19 and Young People’s Education and Employment Pathways.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed global, national and regional economies into a period of profound uncertainty and recession. It is already apparent that young people (15-24) will carry a heavy burden over the next 5 to 10 years in terms of their well-being, education, training and employment aspirations and pathways (Grattan Institute 2020). 

During the last 40 years, the impacts of economic recessions and industry restructuring policies have transformed large parts of Geelong into unemployment blackspots. For the last 30 years young people in the suburbs such as Whittington, Corio, Norlane and North Shore have experienced significant social, cultural and economic disadvantage (Brotherhood of St Laurence 2016). 

Prior to the pandemic, the twelve-month average of Geelong’s youth unemployment rate to August 2018 was 12.4 percent, a rate roughly commensurate with the Victorian and national averages (City of Greater Geelong [COGG] 2018). However, in the Geelong region, the areas of Whittington, North Geelong, Corio, Bell Post Hill and Norlane and North Shore have been highlighted as zones of significant economic disadvantage (Brotherhood of St Laurence 2016, p.7; COGG 2016). In November 2019, prior to the pandemic, the youth unemployment rate was 21.6% in Corio and Norlane, and 18% in Whittington (Skilling the Bay 2020, p.24).  

The status of these suburbs as pockets of disadvantage has been reinforced in research mapping the geographic distribution of social disadvantage in Australia (Vinson, Rawsthorne & Cooper 2007; Vinson et al. 2015). In the 2015 Dropping Off the Edge report, the 3214 postcode (Corio, Norlane and North Shore), recorded an average ranking of 45 – the third worst in the state – across 22 indicators of disadvantage including internet access, income, education level, literacy and numeracy, long-term unemployment, unskilled workers and criminal convictions (Crane 2015).

A recent OECD (2020, pp.6-8) report draws on the results of an ‘Educational Career Questionnaire’ that was completed by students from 32 countries, alongside the 2018 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. Students were asked questions about “the occupation in which they expect to be working at the age of 30 and their plans for further education after leaving secondary schooling”. Key findings include:

  • “young people struggle to develop more informed, more nuanced understandings of the labour market and how they might ultimately engage in it;
  • jobs with origins in the 20th century or earlier…are most attractive to young people. It seems that labour market signals are failing to reach young people;
  • Many young people, particularly boys and teenagers from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, anticipate pursuing jobs that are at high risk of being automated;
  • Approximately one in three disadvantaged teenagers who perform well on the PISA tests does not expect to pursue tertiary education or work in a profession to which university education is a common gateway. High achievers do not always aim high”.

In Australia, ‘disadvantaged’ young people are more likely to aspire to pursue job and career choices that are of a higher risk of automation than young people of high socio-economic status, and around 27% of high-performing, disadvantaged students surveyed did not expect to complete tertiary education (OECD 2020, p.32). The report (OECD 2020, p.6) suggests that across the OECD: “one young person in five is negatively misaligned. That is to say, the level of education and qualification to which they aspire is lower than that typically required of their occupational goal…young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds…are more likely to show signs of such confusion”.

The challenges for imagination, aspiration and information (misalignment) in relation to education, training and employment pathways are exacerbated in a COVID-19 world. UNICEF’s (2020) recent report, Living in Limbo presents data about young Australian’s aspirations, hopes and anxieties about their futures in the context of the COVID-19 crisis:

  • “It’s kind of scary… [I am] in Year 12 and wondering how HSC is going to pan out, and university offers are going to pan out. And then, there may not even be a workforce to join after all of this.” (Female student from regional NSW)
  • “This limbo that we’re living in it feels like it’s going to go on for the rest of the year…I don’t have any aspirations at the moment. I just get up and I do what’s asked of me and then email and end my day with a walk…” (Female, regional Tasmania).

There is an urgent need for research that can identify the education and employment aspirations of young people from regions of historic disadvantage as they emerge from secondary school into a COVID-19 youth labour market crisis (Grattan Institute 2020).

Drawing on young people’s participation in the Geelong Tertiary Futures Program (GTFP) in 2016, their pathways beyond this intervention, through year 12 in 2019, and into post-secondary options in 2020, the project will answer the following questions:

  • What are the school, further education and employment pathways of young people, post participation in GTFP?
  • What impacts have programs such as GTFP had on their education and employment aspirations and pathways?
  • How do gender, ethnic and social class shape young people’s aspirations for education, training and employment pathways in a COVID-19 world of crisis and recession?

The evidence base from this project will inform place-based initiatives and interventions by existing stakeholders and agencies that aim to develop disadvantaged young people’s understanding of, and aspirations for, further and higher education and employment in times of crisis and uncertainty. It will also contribute to national and international policy and academic discussions about these challenges.

The Anthony Costa Foundation

The Anthony Costa Foundation is a charitable foundation established to support the philanthropy of the Anthony Costa and Robert Costa families. The Foundation seeks to make a positive impact in the communities where the families live and work and focuses on the issues of education, health, social welfare, community housing and development and arts and culture. Learn more at https://www.costaam.com.au/partners-foundation/

By James Goring

I am a PhD Researcher at the UNESCO UNEVOC Centre in the School of Education at RMIT University.

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