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Making the Transition

Education and Labor Market Entry in Central- and Eastern Europe


Edited by: Irena Kogan, Michael Gebel and Clemens Noelke

Currently we are preparing an edited volume on the transition from education to work in ten Central and Eastern European countries. More specifically, we explore the consequences of social transformation for the transition from school to work in Central and Eastern Europe. The countries analyzed – Eastern Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Poland, Estonia, Ukraine and Russia – have undergone drastic change, leaving hardly any aspect of society unaffected, providing us with the opportunity to analyze how these changes have altered a fundamental stage in the life course. The case studies in this volume reflect the heterogeneity of Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. In a first introductory chapter, we try to capture this diversity by drawing on sociological research on transformation, political economy, and comparative analyses of education systems in CEE countries. While changes in labour demand are important factors affecting the employment chances of young people, we argue that simple demand-based explanations are not enough, and that a thorough analysis of the transition from school to work must take the institutional environment and most importantly the education system into account. We show that socialist education systems were tightly controlled by the central state. Vocational education played a key role in preparing skilled workers for the industrial sector, while tertiary education, after initial expansion, remained small and exclusive. Persistent labour scarcities and work assignment programs for graduates led to rapid transitions from education into employment.

With transformation, we generally expect a more difficult and turbulent passage for young people from the education system into working life. Finding and keeping a job should become more difficult, making the transition process more uncertain and risky. Drawing on sociological research on labour market integration (Breen 2005, Müller and Gangl 2003, Shavit and Müller 1998), a second introductory chapter formulates hypotheses, focusing on individual educational attainment about who has won and who has lost in the course of transformation. While also addressing demand-side explanations, we ask how education systems structure the transition from school to work in CEE countries and what role transformation processes play in this regard. Given the ossified, overly centralized structures inherited from socialist governments, there are good reasons to be sceptical to whether graduates of different educational programs match the dynamically changing employer demand during periods of rapid economic restructuring. However, we also observe considerable dynamism in the education system itself, triggered by the challenges created by transformation, which we expect to have had important consequences for young people.

At the secondary level, a key question that we focus on is the continued effectiveness of vocational programs in preparing young people for the labour market. Has vocational education become a bridge into skilled employment or does it produce graduates with obsolete skills? Given rapid technological change as well as weak employer involvement in vocational training in the majority of CEE countries, one may be sceptical to whether vocational programs can still prepare young people effectively for labour market careers as skilled workers. However, we also observe that in some countries sustained attempts to consolidate vocational education and training have been made and that the demand for vocational graduates may have persisted.

Furthermore, in a number of CEE countries, higher education transformed from a small, exclusive, rigidly controlled system into a highly marketed, steadily expanding and differentiating system. We can directly assess the consequences of this process and study the new divisions between vocational colleges and universities, higher education institutions differing in prestige, and students paying tuition and those who do not. So far, few comparative analyses exist that study the consequences of educational expansion for labor market entry (see Gangl 2002, Reimer et al. 2008). What we can learn from CEE countries in this regard should be instructive for other advanced countries.

Chapters 3 through 12 comprise the country studies, in which national experts analyze the role of the education system in structuring the transition from school to work. Drawing on the institutional dimensions and concepts outlined in Chapters 1 and 2, they provide an analytical description of key features of each country’s education system, including a quantitative analysis of social inequality in educational attainment. The focus of each chapter will be to analyze how individuals with different education backgrounds fare in their early labour market careers, how quickly they are able to find a first significant job, the quality of this job, as well as duration of and mobility out of this job. Several country chapters will also show how these processes have changed over time. While each country study uses a common methodology and provides comparable analyses, each chapter also has its own thematic focus, providing additional analyses on country-specific topics.

In a concluding analysis (Chapter 13), we review key results and conclusions from the chapters in this volume, focusing in particular on the consequences of educational expansion for young people and the effectiveness of secondary programs in integrating young people into the labour market. Furthermore, we summarize results from cohort analyses in Russia, Estonia, and the Czech Republic to uncover the impact of different transformation processes in these countries on the transition from school to work.