Employers need to tap into the passions of young people to build a modern workforce. 

With young people bearing the brunt of the pandemic, businesses and education and training providers have a mutual responsibility to focus on the workforce of today and tomorrow, rather than what it used to be, said Megan Lilly, Executive Director of the Ai Group Centre for Education and Training (CET) at our recent webinar, Getting ready: Preparing young people for work.  

“Young people are more talented, educated and committed than previous generations and they’ve got the world at their feet, notwithstanding the difficulties they have recently experienced,” Ms Lilly said.  

“They are also entering the workforce in a different way to the rest of us, with hybrid work and working from home more prevalent because of the pandemic. 

“The assumption that they would ‘go’ to university, TAFE or the workplace has been challenged, and it won’t necessarily return to where it was previously.  

“Some young people have never met a co-worker or been in an office environment. How do you induct people in those environments? How do you make that successful? 

“We also need to consider realistic expectations of what a young person should bring to the work environment and what an employer should realistically expect from a young person — and consider if those expectations have shifted.” 


The effect of Covid-19 on school leavers 

When the pandemic started in the first quarter of 2020, there was a significant dip in youth employment participation, Paolo Damante, Senior Policy Officer, Ai Group CET, said. 

“It went down to about 59.6%, and youth unemployment reached a peak of 15.9%,” Mr Damante added. 

A further dip occurred at the end of last year, with 15-24-year-olds among the last groups to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. 

“Subsequent to that, as they got access to those vaccinations, they were able to participate more fully in the labour market, with 72.8% of young people engaged in employment over the summer period,” Mr Damante said. 

“That has remained steady since that time, and we are seeing young people getting more engaged in work.  

“There is a demand for work and there are labour shortages. These are all promising signs — signs that employers are looking to younger people to fill some of those skills gaps caused by border lockdowns and closures.” 


Pandemic disrupts tradition  

“The school-to-work transition has remained remarkably the same for the past 100 years,” said webinar panelist Saxon Phipps, Co-Founder/ Co-CEO, Year 13 — an online platform connecting school leavers to options available after high school and beyond. 

“The pandemic is the first time it was really disrupted. We now have a lot of young people who are not taking the traditional school-skills-work journey.  

“Many are skipping the training and skills stages and picking up micro credentials instead. They want to enter the workforce straight after school because they are ‘over’ education.  

“Part of the challenge for employers is helping young people turn the coping/surviving strategies they acquired over the past two years into skills that are attractive to the business.”  

To do this, employers need to fully commit to the young people they take on.  

“We encourage employers to think about how they bring a young person on; identify what their capabilities are and really commit to them and the learning pathway they want to undertake,” Mr Phipps said. 

“What are the micro credentials that you might wish to connect that young person to, so that they start to acquire those technical skills or proficiencies that you need, given they have already demonstrated those capabilities? 

“Employers need to give school leavers the sense that they are joining an organisation that not only has real opportunities but also a commitment to helping them bring their best to the workplace. That’s the big challenge for a lot of young people, that they feel they are subjected to a set of forces which are beyond their control. 

“If you give them agency and the capacity to bring their best game to the table, they will. We see it all the time.” 


Digital natives  

Employers should capitalise on the tech-savviness of teenagers.  

“Young people are known as digital natives; they’ve grown up with the influence of technology, smartphones and social media for their entire existence,” Mr Phipps said. 

“There has never been more opportunity for young people in industries that are aligned to their intrinsic values and interests.” 

Fellow panelist Trent McCarthy, CEO, Central Ranges LLEN (Local Learning and Employment Networks) & Chair, VicLLENs, agrees. 

“Working with technology to solve challenges is part of the clue here,” Mr McCarthy said. 

“For example, if you’re part of the agriculture or horticulture sector, I wouldn’t tell a young person: ‘Come and work with me and be a farm hand’.  

“I would say: ‘Come and look at what I do and let’s explore what you can do to enhance my business’. 

“We desperately need young people to be in food-producing industries, so consider what they are already interested in, and make that an entry point into the business. 

“Give them a problem to solve. Give them the backing, and partner with them. Rethink your proposition.  

“In the nursery and gardening industry, for instance, say: ‘If you come and work in this industry, you are helping to tackle climate change by helping to green our communities.’”  


Passion matters 

A school leaver’s passion for the role or industry is what matters most to employers, said panelist Nicole Sinclair, CEO of precision components manufacturer and Ai Group member Parish Engineering.  

“They need to be passionate about what they’re doing, especially in our industry where you need to have skills, enjoy working with your hands and be adept at problem-solving,” Ms Sinclair said. 

“Working with machines involves programming new jobs, which, in turn, relies on a huge amount of problem solving.” 

Mr McCarthy said employers benefited from matching roles to young people’s interests. 

“Are they interested in problem-solving or working with technology? Do they prefer working in teams or alone? 

“They may have some of these experiences in school, but they don’t get to apply them in a practical sense,” Mr McCarthy said. 


Dearth of tech schools 

“One of the biggest issues we see today is a lack of tech schools,” Ms Sinclair said. 

“We‘ve had a long, proud history of training apprentices but for some reason, we got rid of tech schools and now everyone ends up doing high school with a focus on going to university. 

“We have all these 14 and 15-year-old kids who don’t know what our industry is about which is disappointing because there is so much potential — and high wages.  

“We’re not even getting work experience students anymore. We find that by the time students learn about our industry in Year 11, they end up coming to us at 18 after school with very little hands-on experience. It’s an interesting shift.” 

Career advisers have a role to play, too. 

“They keep pushing students towards university but only 50% are going to take that path,” Ms Sinclair said. 

“The rest are going directly into industry. This means career advisers really need to have a greater understanding about the various pathways so they can promote apprenticeships to students, and parents feel comfortable that these industries are going to create good opportunities for their kids and are safe.” 

Ms Lilly said career awareness needs to happen earlier in the education system so students don’t prematurely rule out choices or pathways. 


Collar shake-up  

The misconception that roles are either blue or white-collar is created in the early years of high school and perpetuated in the school-work transitional years, Mr Phipps said. 

However, there is a new collar of worker – a mix of white and blue. 

“For example, technology has been brought into some traditional blue-collar industries like bricklaying, which now uses semi-automatic masons,” Mr Phipps said. 

“Then there are white-collar jobs that have been revolutionised by traditional blue-collar roles. If you look at some of the products and platforms being developed — how do you learn those skills? 

“Look at a key industry like carpentry, which involves complex problem solving, creative and analytical thinking and resource management.  

“So, you take a traditional blue-collar role and apply that to a white-collar industry. It breaks those misconceptions that once you join an industry, you’re doing it for life.  

“From a white-collar perspective, it’s realising there are opportunities in these vocational industries which have been revolutionised. It’s increasing our understanding.” 

It’s a trend Ms Sinclair can relate to.  

“There has been a huge shift in terms of technology in our industry,” she said. 

“Everything used to be very hands-on, but now we have these high-tech CNC machines which require programming and CAD drawings.  

“With these new machines and technology comes added safety compared to what it was like 50 or 60 years ago. It’s important to highlight this because our industry is still regarded negatively.” 

Ms Lilly agrees. 

“I sometimes hear people talk quite critically about some of the traditional trades like being an electrician,” she said. 

“The title hasn’t changed but the skill combination within that role has changed enormously.  

“Technology has moved in spades and will continue to do so with the clean energy transformation. The requirement for soft skills has amplified. We shouldn’t let titles distract us from the other things that sit underneath it all.” 


Give them hope  

A Year 13 survey found 78% of students had experienced high levels of stress, anxiety, frustration, fear and a sense of hopelessness over the past two years. 

“The only positive emotion was ‘excited’ — not for the years ahead but for the year to be over,” Mr Phipps said. 

“We can help lower these stresses and anxieties by motivating, educating and resonating with students. 

“Motivate by understanding their intrinsic values and interests. Educate them on the industry and roles and how you use skills and traits like problem solving, creative thinking or resilience.  

“Educate the individual and resonate with them. Guide them, so within three to six months they are more equipped to be independent workers within your organisation or industry.” 


Work journey 

Research has long shown that people will have multiple jobs and careers over their working lives. 

“The first job sets you on your way, but it’s not the destination, it’s just the first job,” Ms Lilly said 

“How do we help people imagine more broadly what they’re not aware of, while making them aware of the influences they are experiencing, whether it’s from parents or schools?  

“Trying to educate students and parents about what is involved to succeed these days is important. It’s about agency, it’s about capability and it’s about experimentation. 

“Tight labour markets are a good time to make sure we don’t leave anyone behind.” 

Mr McCarthy said a national plan for building employment pathways for young people was needed.  

“How we build a workforce for the future is an important topic,” he said. 


Don't miss the Ai Group CET’s next webinar, Industry Precincts: Industry – Education partnerships in practice, on Thursday, June 9, 11am-noon AEST.   

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Wendy Larter

Wendy Larter is the Senior Content Writer at Ai Group. She is a journalist with more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.