Dissertation Abstracts

Climbers or Prisoners of the Labor Market? A Study on Occupational Trajectories of Italian Young Graduates using Sequence Analysis

Author: Monticelli , Lara , monticelli.lara@gmail.com
Department: Sociology
University: Milano-Bicocca University (Milano), Italy
Supervisor: Emilio Reyneri
Year of completion: 2014

Keywords: school-to-work transition , graduate students , sequence analysis
Areas of Research: Work , Economy and Society , Youth


Entry into the labor market and insider-outsider dualism have always been topics of foremost interest in the sociology of work and education. Since the introduction of labor market reforms twenty years ago, the Italian debate found new boost. The extensive use of new forms of flexible contracts, both in the private and in the public sector, generated a vicious cycle for young people. Flexible contracts often become traps of precariousness rather than “stepping stones” towards more rewarding and stable careers. Many authors suggest that entering the labor market with a temporary contract may have some scarring effects on future wages and career perspectives. According to this entrapment theory, the labor market is “two-tiered”, with a primary segment offering good, well-paid jobs and a secondary segment offering short term and low paid work, with no career prospects. Nonetheless, some distinctions within the temporary job market are worth highlighting. Some temporary jobs can actually be considered as probationary periods, acting as “stepping stones” towards more rewarding positions. Others – such as seasonal or casual jobs – are potential traps that lead to scarred careers.
As for the educational level of labor market entrants, scholars believe that tertiary educated youngsters who are employed with open-ended contracts, despite suffering initial wage penalties relative to their peers, have more opportunities to catch up than the less educated job-seekers thanks to their relatively higher bargaining and signaling power.

The analysis of early career patterns is crucial for shedding light on the pervasive phenomenon of job precariousness among young Italian adults. Fixed-term contracts at the beginning of working career can turn out to be both stepping stones or traps. The “career mobility” theories support the former type of evolution: sub-optimal labor market positions can be easily outmatched by internal upward mobility ladders. The particular characteristics of the labor market in Italy – highly segmented, with small to medium family-run enterprises, and with rare upward mobility – can lead us to consider the latter interpretation (that fixed-terms contracts are traps) to be more realistic. Moreover, a series of labor market reforms over the course of fifteen years, introduced a multitude of different fixed-term contracts. Some of them are similar to open-ended contracts with regards to protection and benefits offered to workers. Others, although resembling occasional collaborations between professional freelancers, frequently hide continuous defacto dependent working relationships performed in suboptimal conditions, and without any real binding conditions for the employer. Furthermore, recent statistics report that a large part of young workers start their career holding a fixed-term contract, and being over qualified for their position.

Given this literature, our research questions can be summarized as follows:
(1) What are the main characteristics of careers’ first track of Italian young graduates? Is it possible to group Italian young graduates into clusters according to their work trajectory, and to derive some “ideal-typical” trajectories? If so, do these trajectories reflect the distinction between “stepping-stone” and trapped careers described in the literature?

(2) What is the role played by socio-demographic and exogenous variables (such as geographical area or unemployment rate) in the determination of these trajectories?

First of all, we assume that socio-demographic variables do play a role in determining the timing, the quality, and the characteristics of labor market entry. Ascribed variables are particularly relevant in the case of Italy, where upward mobility is still heavily linked to socioeconomic familiar background. In addition, exogenous and context variables (geographical area, field of study, working public or private sector) are very important. As for geographical area, previous research shows that consistent differences exist between Northern and Southern Italian regions. In particular, the diffusion of informal jobs and unemployment in the South explains the lower rate of fixed term contracts among younger workers, compared to Northern and Central regions. As for the comparison between public and private sector, recent studies reveal that atypical contracts are widespread in the public sector.
As for contract type, we assume that fixed-term contracts do not necessarily lead to entrapped suboptimal positions. In fact, recent quantitative studies have shown the existence of a mismatch between dimensions: type of contract, subjective precariousness and objective insecurity.

To describe the occupational trajectories, we refer to Sequence Analysis (SA), a technique that aims to analyze individual trajectories which are represented as sequences, i.e. ordered collections of the activities experienced by individuals in a given time period.

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