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Transitions from School to Work: A Survey of Research Using the National Longitudinal Surveys

Audrey Light


The person who completes his or her desired level of schooling and immediately begins a career of continuous employment is not representative of the entire youth population. For many young people, the transition from school to work is far less "clean." Consider the following aspects of the school-to-work transition:
  • Students often hold jobs while they attend school. These jobs are not always confined to vacation periods and, as a result, many students gain a substantial amount of work experience. In-school work experience is likely to affect both educational outcomes and subsequent labor market behavior, so researchers who analyze school-to-work transitions must acknowledge that work and school are not mutually exclusive.
  • The distinction between school and work is blurred further when young workers participate in informal and formal job training programs, and especially when they return to degree-granting institutions for additional study. We must recognize that school-to-work transitions are not necessarily "once and for all" if we are to understand fully the relationship between skill acquisition and tangible measures of labor market success such as earnings.
  • As a group, young people spend a surprising amount of time neither working nor attending school. In many cases, nonemployment reflects voluntary and, presumably, beneficial job search, but it can also reflect an inability to locate or maintain a satisfactory job. The amount of time a young person spends in nonemployment influences labor market outcomes, so it is important to understand why a durable employment relationship is often so elusive.

This report surveys the literature that uses data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Labor Market Experience (NLS) to analyze transitions from school to work. The phenomena described above — work while in school, participation in job training, reenrollment in school, job search, and nonemployment — are given a considerable amount of attention in this literature. However, these phenomena are intrinsically related to such broader issues as skill acquisition (including the costs of and benefits to schooling), the determinants of earnings, and job mobility. As a result, the "school-to-work literature" encompasses all of these areas.