combining work and study

Compared to other nations, a high proportion of young Australians combine work and study. It’s a combination that seems to have advantages for most students.

In the VET sector we know the benefits of integrating work and formal learning. Apprenticeships are built around this notion and traineeships have followed suit. But what about those courses of study that don’t have a mandatory requirement for work-integrated learning?

Part time work is a good thing

But whether you work while studying through choice or circumstance, are there any benefits to combining the two, even if the work you do isn’t related to your field of study?

It’s a question with many moving parts, and while the answers aren’t straightforward there seems to be a substantial upside to putting work and study together. But let’s be cautious. An earlier NCVER study published in 2011, Outcomes from combining work and tertiary study (46 pages), reported mixed findings:

Too much work negatively impacts on study completion, but on the other hand work experience does benefit future job prospects. The ideal combination would be modest hours of work in a job relevant to a future career – but this will be difficult to achieve for many students.

All things in moderation then. But the notion that it’s best to work in your field of study isn’t necessarily on the money, as we’ll see in a moment.

Australia has a high rate of young people combining study and work

In August, the OECD released Working and learning: A diversity of patterns (31 pages) which gives us an international perspective on the effects of combining work and study. There were 23 nations in the study. As it turns out, we in Australia have reason to focus on the work-study combination more closely than other developed economies.

A chart in this OECD blog post, drawn from the OECD report, shows almost 60 per cent of Australians aged 16-29 are combining work and study. Australia is second by a whisker to the Netherlands, and way higher than, say, Italy (16 per cent) or Sweden (30 per cent). Indeed, the average across all nations is 39 per cent – roughly where Great Britain sits. Even those nations with education systems that structure work-integrated learning through apprenticeships have lower proportions of young people combining work and study – while the Netherlands is high, both Germany (55 per cent) and Austria (52 per cent) are lower than the Australian figure.

Working outside your field of study

The OECD study draws a number of conclusions on the upside. In some countries, there’s no disadvantage to working in a job that isn’t related to your field of study. Australia seems to be in this basket, perhaps because that part time job builds employability skills that Australian employers consistently rate highly. The OECD report presents the mixed view across cultures about working outside your field of study:

In some countries employers are open to all work activities that are susceptible to teach young people the generic skills required at work – time-keeping, team-work, self-organisation, presentation skills etc. In others, generally those where credentials play a key role, employers are focused on work experience that is specific to the content of the job they are recruiting for. It goes without saying that these two elements – supply and demand – are related, with students engaging more in work outside their field in countries where they know these activities will be valued by employers.

Combining work and study might mean lower youth unemployment

Another important observation in the OECD paper is that youth unemployment is lower in those countries with higher proportions of young people who combine work and study. The paper is careful to point out that it isn’t clear why that’s so. What’s a bit confusing here is that nations with low proportions of students who combine work and study (like Korea with 20 per cent and the Czech Republic with 28 per cent) also have lower youth unemployment rates.

But nonetheless, the two nations with the highest proportions of those combining work and study – the Netherlands and Australia – have much lower youth unemployment.

Overall, combining study and work seems to have legs for young Australians. Just as well because that’s what most young Australians do, whether by choice or circumstance. Our tertiary education system has to work with that reality, and perhaps to value it very highly as a boost for our students’ job prospects.