How can cities tackle youth unemployment in their COVID recovery plans? Ideas and fresh challenges emerging from our roundtable

IPPO’s recent event with Youth Futures Foundation brought together policymakers and practitioners, young people and academics from all over the UK to discuss how COVID-19 has amplified the employment challenges facing young adults – and how best to respond

Rachel France

Three overarching issues informed this virtual event, co-hosted by Youth Futures Foundation and the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) – namely:

  • low youth employment rates in the context of high employer demand for workers;
  • regional inequalities; and
  • marginalised young people falling further behind, compared with their peers.

The focus of the event was city-level challenges and initiatives for young people. Speakers in the initial plenary session offered diverse perspectives – from local councils (Belfast, London Borough of Hounslow) and the Greater London Authority to international and UK-wide viewpoints (OECD, Institute for Employment Studies) and the insightful thoughts of one of YFF’s Young Ambassadors. Another wrote this powerful blog, which was published on IPPO’s website on the day of the event.

Key challenges highlighted by the plenary speakers …

  • The relationship between the state of the economy and the labour market has become more complex. Whereas in the past, when the economy grew, more people were pulled into jobs, this is no longer always the case. People who become unemployed tend to stay unemployed. It is therefore important to monitor transitions such as from college to work, and to provide support when young people become unemployed.
  • There are also challenges to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy approach, as the UK labour market varies by area, with over-provision of jobs in some regions and sectors, and (for example) fewer opportunities for young people in areas where public transport is poor.
  • The problem of work experience: young people can’t get the necessary experience needed to apply for jobs. This is particularly a problem for those whose careers were just beginning when the pandemic started, leading to the current cycle in which young people say there are no opportunities, yet businesses say they are struggling to engage with young people.
  • Finding work can depend on informal links within a person’s social group, so those without this kind of social capital can struggle – particularly those who are also carers.
  • The move to online has favoured young people with the necessary technology and expertise, leaving others disadvantaged.
  • University degrees: more and more young people will have degrees (especially among the cohort who went into higher education recently, as universities increased the number of places in response to A-level grade inflation), but there are insufficient graduate jobs to go round. There is also competition between graduates and non-graduates.

… and some initial suggestions to tackle these challenges

  • Work-readiness training should be introduced earlier in young people’s school careers, and an inclusive approach is required. School premises could be used during school holidays to give young people work experience.
  • Data-driven support and guidance for young people should be delivered in formats that are easily available, highly engaging and understandable to all.
  • It is important to involve local businesses – for example, Belfast City Council has established the Belfast Business Promise scheme, whereby businesses sign up to meet certain obligations to young people.
  • Multi-agency partnerships are essential to aid recovery. However, if government departments do not work together, young people can fall between the cracks.
  • Multi-disciplinary co-location approaches to providing services for young people are also being trialled in other OECD countries in response to their youth employment challenges – for example, in Paris.

Digging deeper: what ideas emerged in the event’s four working groups?

Delegates then divided into four working groups according to their specific interests: Youth Hubs and the co-location of services; how jobs can be ‘future-proofed’; the roles of Jobcentres and work coaches in helping young people into work; and issues for employers in recruiting and retaining young people.

Here is a brief summary of some of the key points that emerged in each working group. Clearly, there is much more to follow up on in all these areas, and we hope these initial discussions will blossom into fruitful collaborations in the future.

Group 1: Working in partnership to level up for young people

The evidence suggests co-location of youth employment services – for example, in the form of Youth Hubs – offers real opportunities to improve support. However, this working group began by stressing that close attention must be given to exactly who is being co-located, where they are co-located, and how these services are organised and delivered.

There are currently 149 Youth Hubs in England, with plans for 110 more to be set up across the UK. They provide employment and skills support under one roof and are formed by local partnerships, typically involving Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) work coaches and local councils to co-locate employment support services from third sector and statutory agencies.

It was suggested that the landscape for Youth Hubs has changed since the onset of the pandemic. Before COVID-19, the strategic intent focused on co-locating professionals to provide a gateway to services via a single point of contact. However, during the pandemic, other services started up which means that the Youth Hubs may now be a bit ‘lost’. Key points to emphasise for the future were felt to be:

  • Youth Hubs need to be sited where young people can access them easily.
  • They should offer young people seamless support – a ‘no wrong door’ policy – so that, for example, young people entering employment still have support in place to help them progress.

Another key concern raised is levels of trust among young people, which can be exacerbated by mental health issues. One delegate raised the issue of links to schools which, when in place, can help to develop trust in the support being provided.

More broadly, other priorities this working group highlighted include:

  • understanding what works locally, with provision tailored to local needs and employers;
  • appreciating the importance of effective outreach – for example, to young people in their own homes;
  • involving local businesses; and
  • prioritising working with sectors such as retail and hospitality to ensure there is career progression for young people.

Group 2: Future-proofing jobs and skills to re-start generational progress

Two UK Government strategies were highlighted as key opportunities for policymakers to future-proof the labour market for young people:

  1. Levelling Up Strategy: for example, using Levelling Up investment to ensure jobs for young people through socially responsible procurement, including via ‘local labour’ clauses and ambitious apprenticeship-creation targets.
  2. Net Zero Strategy: to benefit disadvantaged young people, investment needs to be linked to early development of skills pipelines. Reform and expansion of the UK Government’s Kickstart Scheme and apprenticeships policy are proposed to achieve this, among other measures.

However, feedback from employers suggests younger people are not being sufficiently targeted about the benefits of local schemes such as Kickstart. Although a mix of young people come forward, both non-graduate and graduate, the schemes still need to have broader appeal.

Other future-proofing challenges for policymakers that emerged from this group include:

  • How to remove the disconnect between schools, skills provision and choice?
  • The need for ‘softer skills’ to be taught in schools.
  • The lack of institutional structures that can be used to improve youth employment.
  • Systems not set up and incentivised properly to create local demand for popular jobs, including employers’ contributions being visible locally.
  • Improving the currently fragmented processes by which government ambitions become policy and are delivered.

Group 3: The role of Jobcentres, work coaches and the Youth Offer

This working group considered the effectiveness of Jobcentres – specifically JobCentre Plus – and the UK Government’s Youth Offer in providing employment support and advice to young people. In particular, discussion focused on the challenges for young people in accessing support.

For example, there are specific barriers for 16- and 17-year-olds who, unless they are in receipt of Universal Credit, do not have automatic access to some Youth Hubs. Concerns were expressed that many young people categorised as NEET (not in education, employment or training) are not engaging with these services. It was also felt to be unclear what forms of support or grants are linked to the Youth Offer.

Group 4: Opportunities for employers in recruiting and retaining local young people

This working group highlighted the need for employers to recognise their crucial role in changing the youth employment landscape. For example, where they may often try to pick graduates as they come out of university, earlier intervention programmes may broaden the range of potential employees, along with initiatives to get young people more engaged in their local labour market.

The session was summed up in three key messages for business:

  • Ensure you have the buy-in of executive-level managers when developing better youth employment strategies.
  • In order to be impactful for the young person, the job needs to be fully aligned with your business needs.
  • Don’t go it alone. Work alongside other organisations who specialise in providing support to young people. For example, enterprise coordinators, networks and career hubs can help to pull things together to help young people find good employers and give them confidence that they will be treated fairly.

This working group also highlighted the need to overcome the attitudes of those employers who don’t think they need to treat young people fairly, nor pay them fairly. Similarly, it can be challenging to find the right person within a company to engage with about employing young people. New young employees are often overwhelmed with anxiety so need people who can provide proper support.

Delegates also made the following observations:

  • More thought should be given to the skills and knowledge offerings at school, in order to better prepare young people for the job market.
  • Apprenticeships: employers want young people in apprenticeships, but this is not always an attractive prospect for the young person.
  • Finally, in the hospitality and retail sectors, employers aren’t making their jobs attractive enough for young people – for example, offering low pay, unattractive work and unsociable hours. It’s important for these jobs to be regarded on both sides as potential careers.

Dr Rachel France is IPPO’s Research Fellow. Catch up on the latest work by Youth Futures Foundation here.