Paths can vary, but continuous development is for everyone

This year’s high school graduates are now making key decisions – what will I do next, who shall I be in the future, what kind of work will I do? This is all the more difficult today because, due to rapid technological changes, they are hearing that some professions may cease to exist tomorrow, and sooner or later, many will have to retrain. Nevertheless, research tells us that young people are optimistic about their future careers. What possible paths do they have? How can microcredentials help with this?

They want to be psychologists, programmers or work in the medical field. They would rather have their own business than be employed by others. They believe that school hasn’t prepared them for their chosen profession. Above all, they want satisfaction from the work they will do in the future. This is how young adults describe themselves – people who have just passed their matriculation exams or are just about to take them, are in college or starting their first jobs. According to the NASK report “Educational and Professional Aspirations of High School Students,” published earlier this year, the majority, more than three-quarters of those surveyed, are optimistic about their professional future. 

Well prepared, though not by school

One of the most important conclusions of the NASK report is that young adults are not afraid of the challenges brought by the modern world. Although there is a lot of talk about the dangers of the current changes in the labour market, including the increasing number of professions that are no longer needed or the replacement of workers with artificial intelligence, they are rather optimistic about the future. 

Their positive attitude in facing adulthood and the labour market, however, is not because they are satisfied with what they’ve learned at school. Only 3.5% of respondents said that the current curriculum helped them prepare for the profession of their dreams. 

Perhaps the failure to adapt teaching methods to current trends means that many young people today do not regard higher education as necessary. Until recently, young people were more likely to declare a desire to attend their chosen course of university study after high school in order to guarantee landing a better job in the future. Today, this is just one path, and not the most obvious one any more. 43% of young adults surveyed by NASK want to continue their studies after high school graduation, but they also want to find a job at the same time. Every fifth participant in the study chose one of these two paths, slightly more (20%) want to start working straight away and slightly fewer (19.8%) only want to study.

If not higher education, then what?

Young adults aren’t the only ones who no longer consider a university degree to be a necessity, and this trend is not only found in Poland. A survey conducted in the US by the global job site “Indeed” found that educational requirements are gradually disappearing from job listings. 52% of offers have no requirements for candidates’ formal education. In 2019, 48% of job offers lacked such requirements. In the same period, the number of job offers requiring a university degree fell from 20.4% to 17.8%.

The path from a high school diploma through higher education to work is still the choice of many young people, but, as the survey shows, an increasingly smaller group. So if not higher education, then what?

Fortunately, there are many paths that young people can choose. The first, of course, is to start a career right after high school graduation. If we consider the NASK report findings, currently, the most often cited preferred profession is psychologist/therapist. In this case, such an option is not possible – one must complete a degree and likely a psychotherapy course. On the other hand, in the case of the second most-cited profession of young Poles – programmer, it is as possible. Higher education can provide a solid foundation and facilitate the start of a career as a programmer, but it is not a prerequisite for success in this field. What matters most in this industry are the specific skills that a candidate possesses. Some of these skills can be acquired on one’s own, some can be mastered in shorter or longer professional courses, which can also be found on the Internet. At the same time, as in many other industries, the so-called juniors, that is, the youngest group of employees, have a certain problem when looking for employment. While employers may not pay such close attention to candidates’ completed studies, they do care about experience. This is where young adults dreaming of a job in IT may become interested in internships and apprenticeships.

Dropping out of college does not exempt us from learning

Regardless of which path a young adult chooses, the most important thing is to realize that specific skills and flexibility always count in the labour market. Gone are the days when a learned profession could be practiced unchanged for a lifetime. Practically everyone and each one of us has to constantly improve our competencies today, upgrade and learn more and more new things in order to keep up with the changes, not only in our own industry, but also with those taking place in the world. 

Lifelong learning is a very current approach, which says that our learning does not end at school or on the day we defend our master’s thesis, but begins in early childhood, when we learn about the world around us and the laws that govern it, and continues throughout our lives. With such an attitude and readiness to learn new things, we may never fall out of “circulation”, and by expanding the skills we possess, we remain valuable candidates for various jobs. 

What we know how to do and enjoy doing is what sets us apart, including in the job market. In the sea of resumes that employers and HR teams from all over the world receive every day, many people have exactly the same background. Only the story of what experiences someone has gained, what they did to develop their talents, how they charted their path and what skills they actually have provides valuable information about what kind of candidate they are – says Michal Nowakowski, leader of the project “Microcredentials – piloting a new solution to support lifelong learning.

Meanwhile, Poles’ attitudes toward learning in adulthood vary widely. In the survey report “The Learning of Adult Poles” published in 2023 by the Educational Research Institute, we read that “about half of Polish residents aged 25-65 declared that learning gives them pleasure and satisfaction, and more than 60% state that it is important for them to enrich their knowledge and skills. At the same time, almost 42% of Polish adults agreed with the statement that they no longer want to learn.” From the point of view of young adults, these results are promising – the lower the age of the respondents, the greater the declared desire to continue learning, whether in various courses or on their own. 

One of the biggest challenges of today’s labour market is not only a shortage of labour, but a widening skills gap. The gap between expected labour market skills and the skills of young people in Poland is sizable. If formal education finds it difficult to keep up with the dynamics of rapid economic, technological change, other solutions need to be found that motivate the acquisition of new competencies in a simpler, yet more flexible way. If the skills obtained are confirmed, in accordance with the principles of issuing microcredentials, all the better for the learners who have such certificates, as well as for their recipients – employers – adds Sławomir Szymczak, chief expert on designing digital solutions for skills development in the project “Microcredentials – piloting a new solution to support lifelong learning”.

Microcredentials confirm competencies

For many people, it may be problematic that only part of the qualifications gained outside school can be confirmed and used, for example, in a CV. Because how do you show a potential employer that you have acquired a valuable skill through self-study? In line with the recommendations of the European Union, an approach to developing standards for the creation and use of microcredentials, that is, documents confirming skills in a specific area, achieved with a small amount of effort and based on established standards, is also becoming more common in Poland.

In practice, this means that you can confirm what you really know with microcredentials. We may not have learned it in school, university or professional courses. These can be skills we acquired by pursuing a hobby, for example. At the Educational Research Institute, we are meeting the actual needs of the labour market, we are developing standards for microcredentials, and we have also created the first application in Poland for issuing, collecting, storing and sharing microcredentials and digital badges – Odznaka+ -Michal Nowakowski concludes.