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The Quality of Vocational Education, June 1998

Job Satisfaction

You cannot tell how satisfied people will be with a job simply by looking at the job itself. Research shows that job satisfaction is only slightly related to the status of jobs, their educational requirements, and their other characteristics. Jencks (1972), for example, has reported that job satisfaction correlates only .20 with occupational status and only .12 with educational attainment. These are very low correlations, but they have very important implications. They suggest that people who hold high-status jobs requiring high levels of education are only slightly more satisfied than people who hold low-status jobs. The correlations also suggest that people who do the same jobs may differ greatly in their levels of satisfaction.

Why is the relation between job satisfaction and job characteristics so low? One possibility is that job satisfaction simply reflects a person's overall outlook on life. Some people are easily satisfied, others are never satisfied. A person's disposition may be more important for her job satisfaction than the job she actually holds. A more likely possibility, however, is that people evaluate their jobs by comparing them with the jobs of their friends, not by comparing them with some hypothetical national norm.   Laborers compare themselves to other laborers, executives compare themselves to other executives, and a laborer may therefore be as satisfied with his job as an executive is with his.

A number of researchers have reported that graduates of vocational programs are usually very happy with their jobs (Grasso & Shea, 1979; Mertens et al., 1980, Mertens & Gardner, 1981). In fact, vocational graduates may be happier with their jobs than other graduates are with theirs. A cynical explanation is that placement in a vocational track lowers the aspirations of young people so that vocational graduates are satisfied with less. A more plausible interpretation of the finding, however, is that vocational graduates are more satisfied with their jobs because they are more likely than other students to find jobs that match their skills.

Research studies of job satisfaction of vocational graduates are fairly simple in design, and they do not provide a decisive test of competing theories of job satisfaction. My purpose in this chapter is therefore somewhat limited. I describe relevant studies of job satisfaction, express results on a common scale, and draw conclusions about the satisfaction levels of vocational and other graduates. Because of the limited number of studies available and because the studies are so simple in design and analysis, it is impossible to determine from them what leads to job satisfaction for vocational and non-vocational high school graduates:


I located the studies that I review in this chapter in two steps. I first carried out a computerized search of the data base of the Educational Resources Information Clearinghouse (ERIC). I then examined the reference lists in the documents that I located in the search. The ERIC search itself covered the period from 1982 through September 1993 and used the terms secondary education, vocational education, and job satisfaction. The search yielded 23 reports and articles. Although none of these contained directly useful data, the search did yield relevant background reports, and it ultimately led to a review by Mertens et al (1980) that turned out to be a good source for locating studies of job satisfaction.

By branching from the Mertens et al. review, I located a total of six studies with useful results (table 6.1). The six studies have certain things in common. Each is a survey study in which graduates of different high school programs replied to questions about their job satisfaction, and each covers either a national or state population of young people.  The studies differ from each other, however, in several obvious ways:

The variation among studies is large enough to ensure some variation in results, but it is not large enough to prevent a pattern from emerging.


The simplest way to see the pattern is by examining the percentage of vocational and non-vocational graduates who reported a high degree of job satisfaction (table 6.2)   Andrew and Roberts did not find that vocational graduates were more satisfied than other high school graduates, but each of the other five studies did. The results indicate that graduates of vocational programs are more satisfied with their jobs than other high school graduates are with theirs. 

Andrew and Roberts (1974) surveyed vocational and non-vocational graduates of the class of 1970 in eight Arkansas high schools in 1974, or after four years. They examined responses of all vocational graduates, but they restricted their sample of non-vocational graduates to students from two groups: (a) all those with grade-point averages less than 2.5; and (b) all those with grade-point averages greater than 2.5 who planned not to go to college.  They found no significant difference between the two groups in job satisfaction. They reported, however, that a greater proportion of vocational graduates expressed satisfaction with certain aspects of their present jobs. On a question about overall job satisfaction, however, a slightly higher proportion of non-vocational graduates indicated that they were very satisfied, and a slightly higher proportion of non-vocational graduates also indicated that they were dissatisfied with their jobs.

Conroy and Diamond (1976) sent questionnaires to a statewide sample of Massachusetts students from the classes of 1969 and 1973 during summer and fall of 1975. They classified the respondents as occupational and non-occupational based on their questionnaire responses. They found that occupational students were more satisfied than non-occupational students with their jobs. For example, 59 percent of the occupational students reported themselves to be very satisfied with the jobs, whereas 52 percent of the non-occupational students said that they were very satisfied. Grasso and Shea (1979) analyzed NLS-LME data from young men and women who completed high school and who did not go on to college. Grasso and Shea asked these young people in the base years of the survey in 1966 and 1968, as well as in later follow-ups, "How do you feel about the job you have now? Do you like it very much, like it fairly well, dislike it somewhat, or dislike it very much?" They found that graduates from vocational programs were more satisfied than graduates of general programs. This was true for men and women, blacks and whites. Overall, 55 percent of the vocational graduates reported high degrees of satisfaction, whereas 46 percent of the general graduates said that they liked their jobs very much. Academic students fell between vocational and general students in their level of job satisfaction.

Herrnstadt et al. (1976) examined the post-high-school job experiences of more than 400 male graduates of 18 high schools in nine Massachusetts cities and towns. They first interviewed the students during their senior year in high schools, and they later contacted the students again for three follow-up interviews during the 18-month period that followed high school graduation. They found that job satisfaction differed for students in different curricular programs. A total of 33 percent of graduates of vocational programs (cooperative or regular programs) reported a high degree of job satisfaction. In contrast, 22 percent of the graduates of general programs indicated a high degree of satisfaction.

Woods and Haney (1975) carried out secondary analyses of two national data sets. The first set of data came from the Class of 1972 survey of 18,000 high school seniors. Woods and Haney's analysis of Class of 1972 data was restricted to young people who filled out follow-up questionnaires 18 months after graduation in fall of 1972 and 4 years after graduation in 1976. The students whose data they examined were public school graduates who did not pursue any postsecondary education and who reported that their last high school program was either general or vocational. The second set of data came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Labor Force Behavior (NLS-Youth), a survey of a nationally representative sample of approximately 13,000 young people who were 14 to 21 years old in 1978. Woods and Haney examined data from white students in the sample who graduated from high school and did not pursue any postsecondary education.

The Class of 1972 survey asked young people how satisfied they were with their jobs. Different portions of those in vocational and general programs indicated that they were "very satisfied." In the four-year follow-up, 27 percent of the vocational and 21 percent of the general students responded indicated that they were very satisfied.

The NLS-Youth asked young people about how much they liked their jobs. Again, different percentages of those in vocational and general programs indicated that they liked their jobs "very much." Woods and Haney reported results separately for those who had left school recently (18- and 19-year-olds) and those who had been out of school for a longer time (20- to 22-year-olds). For the 20- through 22-year-olds, 48 percent of the vocational and 33 percent of the general students indicated that they liked their jobs very much.


Mertens et al. (1980) concluded that vocational graduates are as satisfied, or more satisfied, with their jobs than other students. My review of relevant studies suggests that this conclusion is correct. In five of the six studies that I reviewed, vocational students were more satisfied than other students with their jobs. In a typical study, 44 percent of vocational students and only 37 percent of comparable general students indicated high levels of job satisfaction. Woods and Haney (1981) refrained from drawing conclusions about job satisfaction of vocational students.  They thought that differences between vocational and other graduates (a) appeared only at the highest levels of satisfaction and (b) depended on the questions that were used in a survey. Vocational students were more likely to express extremely high levels of job satisfaction on questions asking them how much they liked their jobs. But the differences seemed less clear in the numbers expressing lower levels of satisfaction, and especially on questions asking about job satisfaction rather than liking. I do not share Woods and Haney's reluctance to draw conclusions. The relationship between satisfaction and curricular program is a reliable one. It emerges in almost every study.

The main obstacle to drawing sound conclusions about vocational education and job satisfaction is therefore not the reliability of findings. Instead, it is the limited goals in most studies of job satisfaction. The studies that I reviewed are one-variable investigations that do not probe beneath surface relationships. They show that there is a relationship between high school curricular program and job satisfaction, but they do not show what lies behind the relationship. Differences in satisfaction could be attributable to the high school curricula themselves or to the characteristics of the students who opt for the different curricula. More powerful research methods must be used to disentangle the influence of these factors.

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