Reflecting on a terrible year for youth employment

Youth Employment Group chairs
Friday, April 9, 2021

What a difference a year makes.

In March 2020, we had historically low levels of unemployment and a record high number of people in work. 

The events of the last year have undone much of this progress, with young people worst hit. Across the economy, over sixty per cent of the total fall in people on payroll were under 25. The effect of this economic collapse on young people’s mental health, financial security and long-term prospects is already being evidenced and is hard to overstate.

The government has set out plans to create more opportunities for young people, most notably through the new ‘Kickstart’ scheme, bonuses for employers to take on apprentices and expanding traineeships. Even so, youth unemployment has continued to climb, and many young people are at risk of falling through the cracks between government departments and initiatives.

Twelve months ago, our five organisations pledged to tackle youth unemployment – especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds – by forming the ‘Youth Employment Group’ (YEG). Since then, over 200 organisations have joined this collaborative effort to campaign relentlessly for policymakers and politicians to do everything they can to ensure young people do not suffer the ‘scarring’ effects witnessed after previous recessions. Although some progress has been made, three areas stand out as requiring further action.

First, a focus on ensuring no young person is left behind. Last year, the Prime Minister promised an ‘opportunity guarantee’, yet this was limited to offering young people the chance to start an apprenticeship or an in-work placement. In truth, there are only two guarantees that matter: first, that you get the help you need to move into education, training or work; and second, if you are out of work for over six months, you will be guaranteed a job or training place.

In practice, this ‘guarantee’ should translate into one-to-one support for all 16 to 24-year-olds accessing a job centre, not just those who are claiming Universal Credit. In addition, it should mean access to high-quality careers guidance as well as more support to help young people start their own business, building on the existing ‘New Enterprise Allowance’. An urgent consultation is also needed to understand why the number of young people starting an apprenticeship has fallen sharply in recent years – a trend that COVID-19 has accelerated. A sector-wide government consultation should highlight the main issues and propose a range of solutions by the end of this year.

Furthermore, to deliver a comprehensive guarantee for young people, the deadline for new employers to offer ‘Kickstart’ job placements will need to be extended beyond December 2021. As long-term youth unemployment is unlikely to peak until next year at the earliest, this scheme should not close just when it is needed the most. With some groups of young people in danger of missing out altogether on Kickstart jobs, the YEG will look at how Kickstart could be expanded. Only with all these pieces in place will young people be ‘guaranteed’ the help they need.

Second, a focus on empowering communities to support young people. The new ‘Youth Hubs’ cropping up across the country are a promising way of transforming the landscape for young people in the long term, but the government must start allocating the resources that the Hubs need to fulfil their potential. 

Bringing together different partners within these Youth Hubs, empowered to work locally with employers, has the potential to improve the quality and quantity of youth services. What’s more, through a combination of the upcoming ‘Community Renewal Fund’ and the ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, we can catalyse new local partnerships and help ensure there is ‘no wrong door’ for young people who do not engage with Jobcentre Plus.

Third, we must collectively focus on young people facing the most significant challenges. Even before the pandemic, over 750,000 16 to 24-year-olds – more than one in ten – were not in education, employment or training, and these young people may yet again find themselves at the back of the queue while others experience the benefits of the economic recovery. The overriding goal must be to reduce the labour market inequalities faced by groups such as care leavers, young people with few (if any) qualifications and those living in areas of the country that need ‘levelling up’. 

Cross-government coordination and transparent reporting will be essential in this context. However, at present, no minister or government department has overall responsibility. A Cabinet Office taskforce, shaped by the voices of young people from marginalised backgrounds, should be established to raise this issue to the highest levels and coordinate the necessary provision. It is imperative that we agree what success looks like and hold ourselves and government accountable for delivering it.

It is this desire to help young people facing barriers to accessing employment that brought the YEG together a year ago, and it remains our guiding mission. The whole system must work better for young people, particularly those who face the greatest obstacles to finding a meaningful and sustainable job. Long-term youth unemployment did not peak until five years after the start of the financial crisis in 2008. We cannot, and should not, wait that long before young people get the support they need and deserve this time around. 

The Youth Employment Group chairs include Sam Windett, director of Impetus, Tony Wilson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies, Richard Rigby, head of policy and public affairs at The Prince’s Trust, Laura-Jane Rawlings, chief executive of Youth Employment UK, Anna Smee, chief executive of Youth Futures Foundation.

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