Lessons from research: what can cities do to help young people move into and sustain decent work?

In advance of our hybrid event in Manchester on Young people’s urban futures: what is insecure work like and what can cities do? on Thursday, 8th September at 4 pm BST, Fiona Christie of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Decent Work and Productivity Research Centre discusses findings from her research projects about young people and work. 

The two projects were based in Greater Manchester in the UK and discuss what the extraordinary shock of Covid-19 meant for young people’s lives.  They set out what can be learnt from this unique period for future social policy that can support young people move into and sustain decent work.  The work also includes usable recommendations for city policymakers, employers, job centres, and trade unions.

Fiona Christie

The first research project was funded by the British Academy in 2021 and was titled ‘Young People and Work in an Age of Uncertainty’. It was a small-scale, longitudinal, qualitative study doing interviews with young people in the Spring of 2021 (at height of a national lockdown) and six months later in the Autumn of 2021 at a period when the economy was opening (though many Covid restrictions continued).

The second was a research evaluation of a six month long  (January-June 2022) youth employment project (DLUHC-funded) called ‘Hidden Talent’ managed by GMCVO which sought to support young people who are NEET to progress to the labour market. The project coincided with the declining stage of the pandemic.

Youth employment research has described three different zones that young people inhabit in the labour market. 1. traditionality (e.g., full-time jobs in open-ended contracts), liminality (e.g., temporary and part time contracts) and marginality (e.g., unemployed, government schemes). Many of the young people in the first study had a more liminal status in the labour market, e.g., possessing good qualifications but experiencing insecure work.  In the second, many had a more marginal status, e.g., being unemployed or economically inactive.

Young people navigating insecure work

In the first project, we targeted sectors hardest hit by the pandemic and all the young people who participated had work circumstances disrupted by Covid-19. None had been in a secure working situation prior to the pandemic and Covid-19 exacerbated existing insecurities.  In the Spring of 2021, ten of the twenty-one participants had benefited from some furlough payment and six had claimed Universal Credit. At that stage, adverse consequences related to economic status, mental health, temporal uncertainty, and work/career identity.

However, young people found ways to resist such consequences.  Many demonstrated individual adaptability in improvising to circumstances, others had benefited from varied formal (including careers advisory and Job Centre services) and informal (friends and family) social support systems. Participants articulated strong social values and awareness, e.g., recognising how the structure of the economy leads to insecure work (writ large during the pandemic).  The disruption of the pandemic had not diminished a desire for meaningful work, which can provide progression, autonomy, and social connectedness. Optimism that things would get better held out.

Conducting a second stage (six months after first) illustrated how circumstances for young people change over time. There was considerable movement and change for participants in six months. For many, their situation had got better, especially as the economy opened up, even if work remained insecure.   For others, work remained a painful and unrewarding experience.

Youth employment support: the Hidden Talent programme

The second project was a research evaluation with its findings to be published soon.  One of the unique features of the evaluated project was its focus on ‘hidden’ young people (45% of beneficiaries were in this category), i.e., those who are not in education, employment or training but are not claiming any welfare benefits. ONS data in the UK indicates that there are more young people who are ‘hidden’ than claiming benefits. The project has built on successive work led in Greater Manchester that highlights the importance of working with ‘hidden’ young people.

It adopted a person-centred youth work approach to careers and employment advice and support. It gave priority to recognising that some young people will have circumstances (e.g., mental health and disability) that require additional support.

We spoke to young people who were beneficiaries of the Hidden Talent programme and reviewed outcomes at the end. Key findings from the project illustrated how with the right support young people’s work circumstances can change dramatically and, in some cases, rapidly. Notably ‘hidden’ young people achieved better employment outcomes (34%) than many of their unemployed peers (17%) who claimed Benefits.

Decent Work and the Greater Manchester Young Person’s Guarantee

In both projects, we asked young people about Decent Work and what they wanted and imagined for their future working lives. Their responses suggested an awareness of the nuances of both objective and subjective measures of decent work and comments were made which addressed: earning enough to get by; happiness/satisfaction; dignity/being valued; opportunities for progression; having rights and protection. So not dissimilar from what people of any age want!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, across both projects, those who had a more liminal status appeared to have a greater sense of career/work identity and hope for an imagined future. Marginal young people had much less confidence in imagining their future working lives.

We also asked young people in both projects about the Greater Manchester Young Person’s Guarantee which is in its infancy. None were familiar with it, but all welcomed the idea of societal safety nets and support for young people as they start out in their working lives.

Many of our conclusions across both projects support the aims of what the Young Person’s Guarantee policy framework aims for. Our recommendations echo existing ideas proposed by both policymakers and youth organisations though not fully realised or enacted.

Lessons for the future

Our lessons learnt which follow relate to supporting young people to move towards active participation in the labour market and to be able to sustain decent work for the future.  The significance of acting in timely ways to support young people is a clear theme from our research. Young people want to work and often have an optimism against the odds that needs to be harnessed.

Young people are the future of society and will be relied upon to do all the jobs that society needs to function effectively. There is an urgent need for there to be achievable pathways for them to become active citizens and productive workers.

Recommendations address careers advice, specialist employment programmes, good employment, job centres and trade unions. The following provide some issues to prioritise.

Recommendations for policymakers

Available and timely careers advice and guidance is important for all young people. Young people as early entrants to the labour market need tailored provision of relevant advice about education, employment, and training.  This will have an important benefit for the economy and society as they move towards being active citizens and workers.   A stronger infrastructure needs to exist to make this happen and for it to be available to all young people, not just those who are unemployed or are in education (or recent leavers).  Current funding and provision in this space often via Third Sector and public organisations has been patchy and volatile. The Career Guidance Guarantee campaign provides a way forward.

Creation of sustainable Youth Employment programmes that are not time limited.  Policymakers and employers can work together to create more strategies and generate opportunities to support young people into education, employment, and training. Build upon schemes such as KickStart to make work experience more widely available to young people including targeted activity for those with disabilities who want to work. The inter-relationship between education, employment, training, and other aspects of young people’s lives needs to be recognised in youth employment programmes. There should be recognition of additional support for those with varied barriers, e.g., available mental health support.

Reduce practical barriers that limit young people’s ability to progress towards the labour market. Address issues that affect less well-off young people more, e.g., city policy makers to introduce ways to allow for discounted travel and ID costs for young people.

Ensure young people do not get lost in transition into the labour market. Establishment of a robust data system to monitor young people leaving education, training, and employment so they are not cast adrift as they start their working lives.

Recommendations for employers

Young people appreciate and recognise employers who have good HR practices. This includes good policies around terms and conditions, employee wellbeing, employment contracts, good training options, diversity, and inclusion policies. The Youth Employment Charter and Youth Friendly Badge also provide a way to evidence employer commitment.  Regional initiatives such as the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter incentivise employers to improve processes.

Recommendations for Job Centres

Young people need to be treated differently by Job Centres. Processes are off-putting to many young people especially those who do not know what they want to do and have limited skills/experience. Work coaches should have more discretion in identifying what is a positive outcome for a young person.   The pandemic allowed for more flexible job centre/young person interactions that can be learned from.  Quality of interaction with job centre staff appears very variable.

Recommendations for trade unions

Young people want to engage collectively in organisations and activities. Many want to support ways to make a positive difference to worker conditions. However, few are members of a union.  Trade unions can be an important source of advice and support for young workers. Cost can be a barrier for joining so Trade unions should adapt membership fees appropriately. Unions can help educators by designing and creating suitable materials to be used by careers educators in schools and other educational institutions.

Join us to hear more

The report on young people navigating insecure work will be launched at a special collaborative event between IPPO Cities and Manchester Metropolitan University’s Decent Work and Productivity Research Centre on Thursday, 8th September 2022 at 4 pm BST.   Join us in person in Manchester or online via Zoom.