‘Competition for jobs is increasing’: a young person’s view of work prospects before and during COVID-19 

Lauren Aird is a member of Youth Futures Foundation’s Future Voices Group. Here she offers her perspectives on the employment and training challenges facing young people today

Cash-in-hand jobs, zero-hour contracts

Experiencing homelessness as a young person, and encountering various discriminatory attitudes and behaviours during this time, fuelled a fire inside me I hadn’t known before. It made me want to challenge the misconceptions surrounding people who experience homelessness, and to become an advocate for fairer employment opportunities that have the potential to break this cycle.

Unfortunately, the journey towards financial independence and stable accommodation is by no means easy. In 2019-20, more than 121,000 young people throughout the UK were forced to embark on this journey of being permanently excluded from a stable home. It’s all the more overwhelming for those wrestling with additional circumstances such as mental illness, drug and alcohol dependency, leaving statutory care, criminal records or being a young parent.

While I was homeless, I felt pressured to look for informal cash-in-hand jobs and zero-hour contracts for flexible work, despite knowing that neither of these routes would realistically support me financially. I just felt like I didn’t have a chance of getting a stable job in a well-structured company.

Employers view us as too young and inexperienced

I grew up in a low-income, single-parent family which primarily relied on benefits and welfare schemes. I soon realised there was a social stigma surrounding benefit recipients and young people from low-income backgrounds. Society perceives us as ‘lazy’ or ‘unwilling to work’, while employers view us as too young and inexperienced. Job searching while being stereotyped for my socioeconomic status weighed heavily on my shoulders.

In 2018, while studying Beauty Therapy part-time at college, I had to find employment as part of my Jobseeker’s Allowance commitments. The Jobcentre encouraged me to take part in a New Enterprise scheme, which offered start-up grants and mentoring for benefits claimants pursuing self-employment. It seemed like a good opportunity; I’d been considering this option for a while but had been hesitant to do so without any support.

In reality, though, the scheme consisted of only one workshop that provided little information about the realistic challenges of being self-employed, and instead emphasised ‘success stories’ of people who had received the grant in the past. Upon meeting the first mentor to present my plan, no constructive criticism was given at all. It made me feel like he was praising my business plan just to get through the meeting quicker, rather than actually analysing the plan and flagging up inconsistencies.

Ultimately, my business failed because it was unscalable, which would have been obvious to the mentors had they properly assessed my plan. With hindsight, I feel they should have at least some knowledge of the industries that grantees are going into, in order to be able to properly support their career goals.

My business failing was a genuine blow to my confidence and the lack of support I received when returning to the Jobcentre made me feel a complete failure. I needed support tailored towards young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, with an honest and realistic explanation of self-employment and the financial implications it has on benefit entitlements. Instead, I was left feeling I had been pushed towards this area of employment simply for the sake of signing me off from the Jobcentre.

Competition for jobs is increasing

The impact of COVID-19 on the labour market has definitely added to the stresses of committing to Universal Credit (UC) guidelines. Having decided to change my career path and return to education – I now live and study in Leeds – I receive UC and work around 11-14 hours per month.

Although the Kickstart scheme has been highlighted as a positive outcome of the pandemic, the vacancies on offer seem more suited to those who have little or no other commitments. For the majority of part-time positions, the hours and shift patterns would mean I’d either have to forfeit college or my work for Youth Futures Foundation as a Youth Ambassador.

Other vacancies that work coaches encourage me to apply for are in some of the industries – such as hospitality and retail – that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. People losing jobs during COVID restrictions has meant competition for jobs is increasing: I don’t even get a response from half the vacancies I apply for due to the high level of applicants.

I attend face-to-face appointments at the Jobcentre each week, but always meet with different work coaches – I’ve often been close to tears after uncomfortable interactions with coaches I’ve never met before. It can be overwhelming to have to re-explain your circumstances repeatedly to people who don’t really know anything about you.

The current system of constantly changing work coaches means none of them get the opportunity to properly get to know my circumstances. Having an assigned work coach who could direct me towards additional support would be a more positive scenario. Instead, every appointment I get anxious about how things are going to go and whether anything bad is going to happen.

Feeling anxious about the future

My experiences prior to and during the pandemic have led me to feel very anxious about the future. COVID-19 has reduced the amount of flexible working vacancies within the labour market, creating an ever-increasing possibility of having to take on unreliable shifts or zero-hour contracts. I worry about how this could impact my mental health – and my ability to commit to both my college course and the Youth Ambassador work I love so much.

I want to be able to commit three years to study a degree in Youth Work from 2022, but the issues I’ve faced make me question whether this is a viable option any more. Having my future boil down to a choice between education or financial stability feels unfair and extremely deflating.

  • Read more about Youth Futures Foundation’s Young Ambassadors here