Cristiana Orlando, Health Foundation Research Fellow

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic evidence strongly indicated that youth employment needed renewed policy attention. Despite levels being the lowest in twenty years, as IES has previously evidenced, young people were increasingly employed in insecure and poor quality work, constraining their ability to plan for their futures and increasing their risk of poor mental and physical health, producing ‘scarring effects’ on their lives.

As newspaper headlines and recent publications highlight, young people are among the worst affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The most recent IES labour market analysis shows that three fifths of the fall in employment is due to fewer young people being in work, while benefit claims among under 25s have risen by 125%, with one-in-seven young people now claiming benefits. Young people are in fact 2.5 times more likely to be working in the sectors most affected by the pandemic and there are increasing fears that a further 500,000 to 600,000 among them could become unemployed this year.

Young people who become unemployed as a result of Covid-19 and those entering work for the first time will face significant challenges in getting employment, while those who were unemployed prior to Covid-19, particularly the most disadvantaged, risk being pushed further away from the labour market. The government has heeded calls for an Opportunity Guarantee for young people and has been prompt to develop measures aimed at averting mass unemployment for this group. While the Plan for Jobs is welcome, risks persist including:

  • Reaching those more exposed to long-term unemployment, particularly vulnerable young people, which has traditionally been a difficult task for services, could become even more challenging. The current youth employment response focuses primarily on mainstream solutions. Beyond the short-term support of the expanded Youth Offer there is currently little in place to support these young people and the services that work with them. As a result, there is a risk of an increase in the number of vulnerable young people falling through the gaps.
  • There are some concerns around the Kickstart scheme, how it will target the young people who most need it, what quality mechanisms will be in place, what support will be made available to employers, and whether and how the scheme will lead to sustainable opportunities for young people, as the Learning and Work Institute highlighted.
  • Prior to the pandemic, employment services for young people were highly fragmented while employers were often unsure of how best to attract and retain staff from diverse backgrounds. Youth Hubs will have a key role to play in addressing this challenge, but the mechanisms for their roll out remain unclear as is the plan to improve employer participation and engagement with employment services, which is key to the effectiveness of the measures and has been dramatically reduced by the crisis.

Beyond these issues, perhaps one of the most pressing concerns is that the pandemic has had a strong eroding impact on the aspirations of young people, as highlighted by recent research by IES and the Prince’s Trust. At the same time, the circumstances created by Covid-19 have led to an increase of poor employment practices, particularly in sectors where young people are more likely to work, reversing years of progress around work and health. The combination of these challenges calls for an even stronger focus on the issue of the quality of work for young people, and how we can ensure that the youth employment response to the crisis has not any work but good work at its core.

There is a real opportunity for recovery to be a catalyst for a new era of work, with strong investment in young people’s skills and aspirations, and accelerate the development of the new growth sectors of the economy. However, this will require a concerted effort and commitment by all stakeholders with a role in youth employment, particularly at government level.

Across the next three years I will be leading IES’s research programme for the Health Foundation’s Future Health Inquiry action phase. As part of this project my focus will be on working across the four UK nations to address the risks and challenges I have highlighted. My research will focus on understanding how the response to Covid-19 across different local areas can be focused on successfully engaging young people and guaranteeing both access to and quality of work.

To do this, I will be working across a number of local areas to support them in designing and implementing their youth employment response. I will be engaging with young people and employers to understand their needs, challenges and aspirations. I will support local stakeholders to work in partnership to develop coherent and coordinated youth employment offers. And I will seek to influence policy-makers through my collaboration with the Youth Employment Group and by engaging local and central government in my work. Ultimately, my aim will be to initiate the process for a systems change in policy whereby the quality of work is recognised as a key determinant for the long-term outcomes of both young people, their communities, and our society at large.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.

The Institute for Employment Studies is a centre for research and evidence-based consultancy in employment and human resource policy and practice.

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