Vera Brittain wrote an extraordinary memoir, Testament of Youth, capturing her generation’s experience from 1900-1925 including the First World War. The power of that book’s title comes to mind this week when attending a conference on youth employment. What is the youth voice about jobs, careers, and the barriers to entering the world of work in 2016?

Often, these events are filled with seasoned speakers who are practitioners, opinion-formers, policy-makers and decision-makers from organisations involved in the specific topic. And, yes, this was no different in that respect. Yet, refreshingly, the day was also heavily influenced by the testament of today’s youth. It came in the form of both podium speeches and roundtable facilitation and feedback.

Testament of Employers

  • In 2010, a million young people were unemployed. Today, the ONS figure that the UK Government uses is still stubbornly high at 835,000. Youth Employment UK flagged up that’s an underestimate. Research by Impetus and The Learning & Work Institute identifies 1.3 million young people spend six months or more NEET (not in Education, Employment or Training), and 700,000 are out of work or education for over a year.
  • Centrepoint, a homeless charity, reports that homelessness among the young is rising. Sixty percent of the 1000 young people they serve are with them because of family breakdowns. Most are not ready for apprenticeships and traineeships because of their life circumstances. These include sofa surfers, care leavers, and refugees.
  • The Department of Work and Pensions, with recent awareness-raising campaigns on apprenticeships and talent, says that young people struggle with a perception of their own value.
  • InteYouth Voicerserve Learning and Employment, a large apprenticeship provider who provide solution pathways for young people facing obstacles, finds the traditional CV is no longer engaging their client group. It is trying to bridge the work experience gap in new ways. For example, placing young people on the autism spectrum in the records section of the NHS. Also, Digital Credentialism (badges) – non-academic accreditation that evidences what young people can do and have done, articulating it to themselves and employers in a different way. Youth Employment UK is also working along these lines, introducing a free employability scheme open to all 16-24-year-olds and a way of reframing NEETs as aspiring Young Professionals.
  • Thirty percent of the young people Greater Manchester Talent Match place with employers are NEET and not on benefits (and so outside official figures). Eighty percent have mental health difficulties (which decreases through sustained employment). Thirty percent are ex-offenders. It does not believe everyone is appropriate for apprenticeships. It highlights the barriers young people put up themselves, such as lack of self-esteem.

Youth-friendly good practices

  • McDonald’s input focused on recognising talent. Seventy percent of its 110,000 UK employees are in their twenties and under. The company receives 2000 applications a day, of which 1900 are unsuccessful. There is a 4-stage process to get a part-time job. They want it to be a professional process so applicants feel professional and are judged by their potential. McDonald’s is professionalising its apprenticeships (80,000 apprentices to date) and introducing one at degree level. They are trialling ‘minimum hours’ contracts instead of a zero hours approach.

Our people strategy starts with attracting individuals with talent. It’s about the person in front of you. Having a qualification doesn’t make you a great person. We look for people who are energetic, passionate and great with customer service. Everything else we can train them to do.  Cheryl Chung, Head of Communications at McDonald’s UK.

  • Rathbone Training focused on youth voice. Its work builds in resilience and empowers young people to face and deal with obstacles to getting a job and career. The barriers young people face include poor or lack of career advice, homelessness and housing, and difficult conversations with their parents who lack understanding of what they are going through.
  • Learndirect, another large apprenticeship provider, spoke about creating opportunities. Its messages include: apprenticeships are not better routes, they are equal; the opportunity to switch careers at any time is important; the requirement for Maths and English qualifications can create artificial barriers to recruitment; apprenticeships are a huge benefit to an employer’s business. For example, at Lloyds Bank apprentices get promoted faster, their engagement scores and grades at annual reviews are higher, and retention is better at that level.
  • Santander reflected on developing people in early careers. It has introduced WorkWise for 14-18-year-olds, sessions about the world of work, social media, job search methodologies, getting the interview and managing disappointments. In 2016, WorkWise has reached 2500 young people in schools. Santander is in the top 100 Employers of Choice for school leavers. Rathbone Training suggested that banks are in a position to really help those young people who struggle to open bank accounts.
  • IFDS, a financial services company, focused on fair employment. Twenty-seven percent of their 5500 employees are young people and 725 are apprentices. All entry-level roles are apprenticeships with salaries rising from £12.5k to £16k over 18 months. Their top three youth-friendly tips are: open your mind up to what a young person can do – they can and will amaze you; recruit as much on attitude and enthusiasm as qualifications; engage with young people in the community and advise on what you’re looking for.

The consensus emerged from the conference that young people who are furthest from the labour market are far from ready. Fixing systemic barriers is the priority. Many people were struck by the importance of a youth voice, avoiding assumptions about young people, and doing more to make their workplaces youth-friendly. ‘What is my role as a good citizen?’ was a golden thread during the day.

Testament of Youth

Here’s the youth voice from the conference:

  • We want relevant, interesting work experience and to bounce into different taster opportunities.Youth Voice
  • We need to find the balance between our social, education and work situations to make informed choices in our lives.
  • Everyone stereotypes us, painting us with a heavy brush. School careers advisers treat us as just a number and leave it to someone else to bridge the gap for us.
  • Trust us by involving us in the big decisions.
  • 3 tips for young apprentices: it’s OK to make mistakes; ask questions; put in the work if you want to progress.
  • 3 tips for employers: offer typical opportunities you offer to experienced employees to young people; allow young people to challenge existing methods and processes; give young people a chance to control their career and not be afraid to ask questions about it.

Responding to one youth voice

Robbie is a young person from a rural part of Scotland. He spoke at the conference about the lack of opportunities to be a mechanic, what he most wanted to be. He gave four options for his way forward to the 100 people at the conference. The aim was to get people to share in his frustration and to offer solutions.

I’m not going to let the fact it’s difficult stop me. Robbie, unemployed young person.

The audience responded brilliantly, offering clarity and new ideas. By the end of the day, a crowdfunding page was set up with donations rolling in to help Robbie fund driving lessons and overcome the challenge of a daily three-hour round trip from home to college to train as a mechanic. Real problem, real action, real hope.

Will this generation of young people irrevocably change with the blight of unemployment and underemployment? It doesn’t have to be this way if each of us genuinely listens, takes on board the youth voice and does something bigger than ourselves to help.

What will you pledge to do today?