New approach needed to tackle youth unemployment
by Fiona Blacke
Support needs to be targeted specifically at young people, taking their background into account, if a substantial difference is to be made to unacceptably high youth unemployment figures, says charity
Research shows young people in the United Kingdom today are more likely to claim Jobseeker's Allowance than the rest of the population, leading many to label them as a lost generation. Yet these young people were not born unemployable – it is our systems that have failed them. While initiatives do exist to try to tackle this issue, we need a more holistic approach that focuses on how young people can be supported at every stage of their development.
The number of NEET young people – those not in employment, education or training – is on the rise. Social factors that begin to affect the most marginalised young people from birth prevent them from achieving their true potential. For example, for some young people who are brought up in communities characterised by low income, inadequate housing and poor diet are likely to restrict their social and physical development. In families affected by intergenerational unemployment, young people grow up to think joblessness is the norm.
School provides young people from such backgrounds with an education, but school-based engagement rarely provides the extensive support they need to flourish. Children actually spend 85 per cent of their time outside the classroom so, while teachers strive to provide their pupils with instruction and care, in reality external factors have just as strong an influence.
The result for many young people who have experienced disadvantage is not only underachievement but also extraordinarily low self confidence. They may also lack the kind of skills needed to help enter the world of work, including vocational and interpersonal skills, and essential intangible skills, like self discipline and the drive to get up and out in the morning.
Some people seem to believe this means young people who find themselves NEET post-16 do not aspire to become economically active and make a positive contribution to society. However, what they actually lack is expectation. With extremely low self esteem, and often no immediate role models, they simply do not expect to get a job or be successful.
The government has encouraged organisations to offer apprenticeships to provide post-16-year-olds with vocational training routes. As a result, there has been an overall increase in the number of apprentices, but many of the people taking up these opportunities are aged over 25, rather than the critical 16-24 age group.
It is clear that support needs to be targeted specifically at young people, taking their background into account, if a substantial difference is to be made. The Youth Contract – the Department for Work and Pensions' initiative to get young people into apprenticeships and work experience placements – is a solid step in the right direction. However, an approach that focuses solely on the lack of opportunities within labour markets for young people will fail to tackle the multiple root causes of the problem.
Other measures, such as the Pupil Premium and the Troubled Families Initiative, are well intended, although their effectiveness is as yet unproven. The problem is that these are piecemeal and short term approaches and as such it seems unlikely they will be able to make a convincing difference at scale.
Central and local government and the youth sector need to work together to develop a system that provides support and guidance to disadvantaged young people at every stage of their development in a consistent and continuous manner. Guaranteeing their access to youth work services is a fundamental way of achieving this. This is why the National Youth Agency has recently called for government to introduce a Youth Premium, as a way of guaranteeing funding for youth work.
Youth work helps address the underlying causes of unemployment, as the rapport young people build with their youth workers provide them with essential support in their educational and social development. Youth workers spend time with young people on their terms, generating a sense of self worth and teaching them how to work with others. By building an informal learning curriculum based on the young person's own life experiences, youth workers help young people to critically understand their role in society and the economy and develop the tools to change that experience. This helps build the confidence young people need to succeed.
Without the restrictive framework for engagement that other institutions like schools are subject to, youth workers – both professional and volunteer – can spend as much time with young people as they need. As a result, young people feel valued and empowered, with positive implications for their health and wellbeing.
Now that funding for youth services is uncertain, the value youth workers provide will be restricted. To avoid this and ensure all young people are being supported in their development into active citizens, government needs to take a positive stance on the provision of all youth services. The role of adults who directly engage with young people, either as professional or voluntary youth workers, cannot be underestimated. If policy-makers are serious about addressing youth unemployment, they must guarantee that youth workers can continue to deliver this support.
Fiona Blacke is chief executive of the National Youth Agency in the United Kingdom
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