Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Systems of Educational Specialization and Labor Market Outcomes in Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Systems of Educational Specialization and Labor Market Outcomes in Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands

Article excerpt


This article compares the impact of education on labor market outcomes (wages and occupational status) in three countries: Norway, the Netherlands, and Australia. The aim of the present article is partly descriptive: what are the effects of educational level and fields of study on indicators of labor market success in these three countries? Such a description is valuable, as my review of the literature did not reveal any published sociological research on cross-national variation in the effects of field of study on labor market outcomes (with the exception of the recent working paper of Kim and Kim, 2003).

However, the aim of this article is not solely descriptive; it offers some explanations for potential differences as well. Thus far, comparative research on the institutional impact of education on labor market outcomes has mainly focused on the extent and system of vocational training, and the degree of standardization of educational programs within a country (Allmendinger, 1989; Brauns et al., 1999; Shavit and Muller, 1998). These characteristics are particularly useful to classify systems of secondary education. As an increasing proportion of the population of western societies enter higher education (Shavit and Blossfeld, 1993), this means that available classifications of educational systems become less meaningful for a considerable number of people. The increase in participation has made research on labor market differences across fields of study of central interest (e.g. Daymont and Andrisani, 1984; Hansen, 2001; Kalmijn and Van der Lippe, 1997; Van de Werfhorst, 2002; Van de Werfhorst and Kraaykamp, 2001). By extending the framework of stratification and vocational specificity of educational systems, we argue that countries differ in the transparency of competencies that fields of study provide to students. In educational systems where the obtained competencies are highly transparent, employers use education as a signal of skills and trainability more than in systems where competencies are less transparent.

Two outcomes of interest are hourly wages and occupational status. By focusing on two different measures of job success, we get a more comprehensive picture of the benefits of education on the labor market. As sometimes people may trade off higher incomes against lower occupational status and vice versa, analysing both outcomes simultaneously gives us further insight into the investment decision that people make in a particular field of study.

The research questions to be answered are: to what extent do educational qualifications lead to labor market success differentially in Norway, the Netherlands, and Australia, and how can we explain these differences? These three countries are interesting to compare as the most crucial aspects of educational systems, including higher education, differ strongly. At the same time, all three countries have important similarities relating to economic factors affecting the demand for qualifications. Economic growth was at or above the average OECD figures during 1992 to 2002 (OECD, 2003). The expenditures and employment in research and development, another indicator affecting the demand for qualifications, are very similar as well (OECD, 2002).

Theoretical Background

Educational Systems and Transparency of Competencies

Earlier comparative work on the relation between education and the labor market has argued that countries vary between a 'qualificational space' and an 'organizational space' (Maurice et al., 1986). In a qualificational space (Germany in their study), skills are learnt in a vocationally oriented schooling system and employers select employees based on these assets. In an organizational space (France in their study), work skills are mainly acquired on the job and education functions merely as a screening device. Another influential approach classifies educational systems in terms of the level of standardization: the extent to which the education system meets the same standards nationwide, such as in terms of budgets, examinations, or teachers' training; and stratification: the proportion that attains the maximum number of school years combined with the extent and system of tracking in secondary education (Allmendinger, 1989; Kerckhoff, 2001; Shavit and Muller, 1998). …

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