A young person leaving school today is, in some respects, very lucky. The sheer diversity of the opportunities on offer, alongside the growing economy and increasing employment prospects, illustrate this. But in other fundamental respects, the current generation of young people are systemically disadvantaged – and this should concern us all.
UKCES has a new report, published on Thursday 12 February – yes, get excited. It’s called Catch 16-24, in reference to Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22. A Catch-22 situation is ‘a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape’. This describes the situation many young people find themselves in; they need work experience to get a job, but without a job or other opportunities, they can’t get work experience.
Work experience matters. Despite the baggage attached to the phrase, work experience needs to be seen as essential, positive and beneficial for all parties. 66% of employers say that work experience is a critical or significant factor when they are recruiting. Yet only 20% offer it to schools and only 12% offer it to colleges.
Alongside this, there is a long-term decrease in young people taking on part-time work alongside studies, or ‘earning and learning’. There is likely to be multiple reasons why this is happening: increasing pressure on getting good grades, reduced opportunities for part time jobs (when was the last time you saw a young person on a paper round, or glass-collecting in a pub?) and a cultural shift where older people compete for these lower-skilled or part-time jobs are all likely contenders.
Either way, the bottom line is that despite the good economic outlook, a young person entering the job market today without work experience under their belt is at a significant disadvantage.
My own experience bears this out. When I was but a lad of fourteen, I did my two weeks work experience at Borders Books in Leeds (Borders has since gone bust – I accept no responsibility). It was a transformative experience in many ways. One reason was because the much anticipated and then-unreleased Harry Potter was piled up in the backroom (I discovered who died in book five before anyone else and am still smug about it). Another, more significant reason was because I learnt how having something you love at the centre of your working life really makes a difference. In this case, it was music, books and film, but for another young person it could be maths, languages or football.
I also found that I enjoyed customer service and can still remember some of the staff and customers I met. But more than anything, it provided a boost of confidence and a sense of direction at a critical juncture in a young person’s life.
Subsequent work experiences have reinforced this. Working as a van driver for a TV production team or as a cleaner at the Edinburgh Festival (Jeremy Paxman once asked me where the toilets were) didn’t just equip me with skills and attitudes for the workplace, but they spurred me on to aim for a career rather than settle for a job.
Speaking of skills and attitudes, here’s some more catch 22-style irony: despite low levels of youth employment, employers who take on young staff overwhelmingly tell us that they are happy with them. 81% of employers who recruit graduates and 73% of employers who recruit college leavers say they are ‘prepared or very well prepared’ for work. Only a minority of employers reported literacy or numeracy skills as deficient in their young people, and the more time a young person has spent in education, the less likely ‘poor attitude’ is to crop up as a complaint (20% of 17/18 year old school leavers, dropping down to just 6% of graduates). So whilst it is true that improvements can always be made, the picture of young people in the workplace is positive.
To hammer home the Catch-22 theme once and for all, the ‘get on yer bike’ approach to finding work is undermined by the fact that a large number of employers use word of mouth to recruit, rather than using more open, inclusive methods. So unless young people already have an employer, or a network of contacts (usually family) to put in a good word, they are less likely to find a job.
Yet with determination and creativity we can scale the youth employment challenge. And it’s much easier than you might think. If each employer does just one thing, the youth employment situation will be massively improved. Just one thing, like giving a talk in a local school. Just one thing, like hosting a site visit, conducting mock interviews or recruiting for new positions openly and inclusively. Just one thing that could open up a young person’s career, like offering work experience or an apprenticeship.
Getting young people informed, inspired and thinking about their next steps is a fantastic opportunity for employers to engage with their future workforce – so, can you do just one thing?
"That's some catch, that Catch 22," Yossarian observed.
"It's the best there is" Doc Daneeka agreed.
Catch 16-24 will be published on Thursday 12 February, and will be available on the UKCES website.