Research on the transition from school to work focuses on the relationship between the level of education and the first job achieved upon entry into the labor market. This has traditionally been a central topic in social stratification and social mobility research. As such, the study of the transition from school to work has reflected the main theoretical positions that have dominated research on social stratification since the end of World War II. Under the influence of functionalist theory, the relationship between education and the first job has been studied in terms of the classical achievement/ascription dichotomy. Thus, scholars were mainly interested in establishing the relative weights of achieved and ascribed factors in the process of status achievement, in particular with regard to the first job. The key research question was whether or not access to better jobs was increasingly dependent on achieved factors, such as education, and less and less dependent on ascribed factors such as the characteristics of the family of origin. In the same period, economists developed the theory of human capital, which assumes that formal education increases individual productivity by providing the skills and knowledge required for the most demanding occupations. According to this theory, individuals can improve their productivity by investing in their own education. Moreover, employers can dispose of perfect information about school leavers’ productivity by considering their level of education. Thus, this theory predicts a direct relationship between level of education and quality of the first job achieved.
In opposition to both functionalist sociological theory and human capital theory, credentialist theory, developed in the 1970s, questioned the idea that education increases individual productivity at work. In this interpretation, educational certificates are credentials that certify membership in a given status group, i.e., groups that share a common culture, worldview, and values. While functionalist and human capital theories argued that school leavers are sorted into occupations on the basis of their merits and productivity, credentialist theory suggested that the process of the school to work transition is ruled by dominant status groups who define the educational requirements for a given occupation and, in this way, control and limit access to their privileged positions. The critique of the human capital assumption that education increases individual productivity is also the starting point of the signal theory of education that has been developed by both economists and sociologists. According to this theory, employers interpret education as a signal of the future trainability of applicants for a job vacancy. Although the level of education is not directly related to actual productivity, it reflects other individual traits such as commitment and social and communicative skills that are crucial for subsequent success at work. The important implication for the school to work transition is that, among other factors, the signaling capacity of educational qualifications is crucially dependent on the number of school leavers with a given level of qualification: as their number increases, the discriminatory information attached to the educational qualification decreases. If this is the case, one might expect the outcome of the school to work transition to depend to a greater extent on factors other than the mere level of education.
In more recent years, research on the transition from school to work has reflected and partly fostered a progressive shift from social stratification and social mobility studies toward labor market sociology. This shift has come about with three interrelated epistemological, theoretical, and methodological changes. First of all, more effort has been made to specify the mechanisms underlying the school to work transition. Second, the importance of the institutional context in which the school to work transition is embedded has been acknowledged. Third, dynamic methods of analysis have been applied to study entry into the labor market, as opposed to the traditional cross sectional methods.
The first of these changes can be described as an attempt to move from a ”variable sociology,” mainly interested in establishing the patterns of association between independent and dependent variables, to a ”mechanism sociology” that searches for the generative processes of social inequality. In the past, research on the school to work transition mainly focused on the net association of individual education and different measures of quality regarding the first job. In recent years, however, it has been recognized that, in order to address the questions ”Who gets which job upon entry to work, and why?” one should account for the broader processes underlying the supply and demand side of the labor market and how they match. An explanation of the school to work transition should ideally consider the number and characteristics of school leavers (supply side), the availability of jobs with given characteristics (demand side), and, finally, the processes through which the school leavers achieve valuable information about job vacancies and the employers select employees from among the potential candidates for a job (matching processes).
This shift toward broader explanations of the process of entry into the labor market has also led to the acknowledgment of the importance of the institutional context in which the school to work transition is embedded. Thus, comparative research has highlighted institutional differences among countries or over time that might affect both the characteristics of the supply and the demand sides and the matching processes in the labor market and, thus, condition patterns of entry into the labor market. With regard to the characteristics of school leavers, a widely applied typology in research on the school to work transition distinguishes between the level of standardization of educational provisions, the stratification of educational opportunities that characterizes different educational systems, and the level of credential inflation. More precisely, standardization refers to the degree to which the quality of education meets the standard in the country under consideration. What is important in this regard is whether curricula are nationally defined, whether teacher training is uniform, whether there is a national standardized examination system, and whether there is any large variation in funding across schools and universities. On the other hand, the concept of stratification points to the degree of separation of students into differentiated educational tracks and to the selection procedures occurring at early ages. Finally, credential inflation refers to the proportion of each cohort that gets to the highest level of the educational system. This last concept is important because it expresses the idea that the value of a certain educational qualification upon entry to the labor market depends on the number of school leavers with the same level of education. In general, it has been argued that, in countries with highly stratified and standardized educational systems and low educational inflation, educational returns upon entry into the labor market are on average higher than in other countries. This is because high levels of stratification and low credential inflation make it possible for employers to select among fewer applicants with clear cut distinctions in the qualifications. Moreover, higher levels of standardization make the signals provided by education more reliable. The empirical evidence provided by various cross national studies largely supports this type of argument.
With regard to the matching processes between school leavers and job vacancies, the study of the school to work transition has benefited from the insights of network analysis. The key research issue in this respect is if and how the process of entry into the labor market is facilitated by the circulation of valuable information on vacancies and job applicants through the network of relatives, friends, or simple acquaintances. Comparative studies have also focused on the nature and strength of the institutional linkages between the educational system and the labor market. In this respect, it has been argued that the school to work transition is smoother and the relationship between the level and type of education and quality of the first job stronger in those countries where there are direct linkages or co linear linkages between the educational system and the occupational structure. Direct linkages exist in the dual system types of vocational training, such as the German and Danish ones, where employers and school jointly collaborate in providing training. An additional and rather exceptional case of strong linkage is the situation where the school acts directly as a job placement office, as in the case of Japan. Co linear linkages are found when there is strong congruence between training and certification provided in school and training or legal requirements for specific occupations in the labor market. For instance, in the Nether lands, although there is little joint delivery of training by school and employers, there are a large number of occupations which require applicants to have taken training programs in the educational system before entry. Finally, where no direct linkages between school and work exist, as in the US, employers are not involved in any way in schooling and there is no formal congruence between training and certification provided by the educational system and training or legal requirements to access given occupations in the labor market.
Less attention has generally been paid to cross national differences on the demand side of the labor market that may potentially have severe consequences for the transition from school to work. Obtaining a good job after leaving school depends crucially on the avail ability of good jobs. In their most general form, demand side institutional differences that are particularly interesting for the school to work transition refer to cross national variation in the ratio of vacancies of highly skilled/unskilled jobs. All other conditions being equal, more highly educated people will have an advantage in terms of the quality of the job upon entry into the labor market if the demand for skilled jobs is high. Accordingly, the demand for skilled and unskilled labor will depend crucially on the productive system of a country and on the dominant market and organizational strategies of national firms. The political economy literature on the varieties of capitalism and production regimes might offer useful insights on national differences in the demand for qualified workers for research on the school to work transition.
With regard to the most important methodological changes in this area of study, one might mention that in recent years the outcome of the transition from school to work has been conceived not only in terms of the quality of the first job achieved, but also considering the duration of the first job search. Thus, one aspect studied is how different indicators of educational achievement affect the speediness of the transition to work and how the duration of the job search itself influences the quality of its outcome. In this way, the intrinsic dynamic nature of the process under study has been fully acknowledged.
In sum, the study of the school to work transition has traditionally been a border area between economics and sociology. One might conclude that in the last decades the progressive broadening of the scope of analysis to include supply, demand, and matching processes, the acknowledgment that the process of entry into the labor market is embedded in different institutional contexts that might vary from one country to another, and, finally, the adoption of a longitudinal perspective have made the sociological contribution in this area most fruitful.
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