Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2000

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Stewart Crysdale, Alan J.C. King, and Nancy Mandell
On Their Own? Making the Transition From School to Work in the Information Age.
Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press., 1999, 178 pp. $19.95 paper (0773518053), $55.00 cloth (0773517855).

In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the topic of youth’s transitions between education and work. As suggested by the authors of On their Own? Making the Transition from School to Work in the Information Age, there are a host of contributing factors for this, including increasing global competition for markets, new technologies, frequent staff reductions, and greater demands for post-secondary credentials by employers. They set out to investigate the opportunities available for youth in preparing them for productive and gratifying employment, and how youth might be responding. Additionally, they examine the effects of class, gender, ethnicity, and personal goals and values on youth’s transitions, and how controlling structures could be changed to widen opportunities and motivate them. The concerns and questions that the authors identify surrounding transition processes, while not new, are timely and relevant today.

To examine school-work transitions of youth more than 1000 individuals were involved in their study. This included interviews with 324 Ontario and Alberta youth five years after they had graduated from high school in 1984-85. Interview and questionnaire responses were also obtained from the same youths’ parents, teachers and employers. The approach adopted utilizes multiple methods, combining quantitative data analysis with a more qualitative case study approach. The sample of youth drawn for the study is purposive and is thus not generalizable to all Canadian youth; the authors acknowledge this. Yet their approach, reflecting a holistic developmental design, provides a broader contextual basis to examine school-work transitions, which allows for the opportunity to control on competing explanations. They point out that their analysis strategy contains two basic components; to define the dimensions of transition, and also to look at the main conditions of positive transition.

Findings reveal that youths’ descriptions of their transitions can be summarized in four ways: uncommitted, non-careerist, conservative and innovative, with most youth identifying with the last two types. The typology presented is helpful for characterizing these transitions. As well, the inclusion of direct quotes from the youth they interviewed helps to provide a more tangible portrayal of their school-work transition experiences.

Other results reveal a strong impact on outcomes of individual factors, including school marks, individual effort, job expectations and interestingly, attendance at worship services. One “structural” factor found to be influential is consonance of elders’ educational and jobs aspirations for youth. Although consideration of parental background factors (e.g., occupational and educational background) is a common feature of school-work transitions research, their results also reveal that goals and values held by parents and others may play an important role. Another interesting finding is the positive impact of “democratic decision making in the family” on stable employment for youth, further revealing how social context influences outcomes.

The authors support the position that co-op and work experience programs in secondary education can help youth in their transition to the labour market. They note for example that co-op programs offer an alternative learning experience that positively prepares students for work. Findings from their study support this position. For example, youth who were involved in co-op programs attained more in their education and work, had more self-confidence, and found work that was more consistent with their education.

Related to their analysis of work experience and co-op programs, the authors also address the role that employers play in youth’s school-work transitions. Results from the study reveal that only one-fifth of employers offer formal training lasting longer than a month; a finding consistent with other research on training offered by Canadian firms. Perhaps tellingly, the low incidence of formal training offered by employers in their study prevented them from suitably examining the role of training in youth’s transitions to the labour market. Findings also reveal a relatively strong relationship between employers’ aspirations and encouragement for youth’s careers, youth’s own aspirations, and their actual attainment.

Towards the end of the book (Chapter 9) an outline of the education systems in the United Kingdom (by David Ashton) and Sweden (by Rune Axelsson and Erik Wallin) are provided. These overviews are useful for readers less familiar with these different education systems. Yet, while some comparisons are made to Canada’s education system, this comparative exercise lacks the more thorough type of analysis found in the earlier chapters.

Overall, however, On Their Own? offers a useful and current Canadian source of information on a topic that has been receiving widespread attention in recent years. In light of continued concerns about employment prospects for young people today, the holistic approach that Crysdale, King and Mandell adopt and the results provided from their study would be of interest to practitioners of school-work transitions research. However, perhaps more importantly, the study would be beneficial for the key players of the transition process to consider; that is youth themselves, along with parents, educators and employers.

Jeffrey W. Bowlby
Applied Research Branch
Human Resources Development Canada
January 2000
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