In our previous blog, my colleague Golo Henseke outlined the economic plight of young people during COVID-19. In line with previous economic downturns, young people are struggling in comparison to established workers to maintain employment. Through country-comparisons, he also highlighted governments’ scope to influence youth unemployment significantly.
In my earlier research, conducted with Professor Pauline Leonard, we explored a range of youth employment support initiatives in different places in the UK. We found that the efficacy of local youth employment support initiatives changes with local labour market conditions as well as more holistic features of an area such as availability of affordable childcare and transport (Leonard and Wilde 2019). Policy responses often, therefore, need to be adaptable to local circumstances.
Alongside these issues, however, COVID presents new challenges for supporting young people. One element that was valuable to young people in all the cases that we explored in our previous research was the opportunity to discuss their lives and hopes with a neutral party. The chance to build a relationship of trust with someone interested and supportive was sometimes the first time that our participants could discuss their futures and make a plan to achieve their aspirations. Given the shift to virtual working that many sectors have been forced to undertake, one question is to what extent youth employment support initiatives have continued offering this vital mentoring to young people. We suggest this may have a detrimental impact on support for young people due to the difficulties of home working and homeschooling for youth workers and the accessibility to technology for young people themselves.
This situation is likely to have also been an issue for education providers of different kinds who offer training for employment. In my role as a university educator, I have had to redesign my education provision for remote learning, and in doing so have encountered students who do not own a personal computer, who lack a reliable internet service, who do not have a private space to study at home, and who have found the transition to online learning difficult and isolating. Similar issues, and perhaps additional ones, are likely to arise for those studying other qualifications. Several of the schemes that we investigated also included work experience or workplace ‘tasters’ that enable young people to interact directly with employers in low-risk settings and become familiar with different sectors and types of jobs. The impact of social distancing and lockdown on these activities is not clear, although it seems likely that it will have been challenging to continue these.
Our current research project will youth employment support initiatives in light of these difficult circumstances, the constraints on offering support, and what methods have support organisations used to adapt their provision for young people throughout the period of Covid-19 restrictions. Given the importance of local labour market conditions and broader infrastructures for youth employment, we conduct interviews with a range of stakeholders, including local policymakers, employment support providers (i.e. JobCentre/charities/education institutions), employers, etc young people. Every six months, we will select three areas that represent above average, average and below-average joblessness trends, as indicated by changes to claimant count amongst 16-24yr olds. These snapshots will enable us to understand activities across the UK and how different local areas are coping and responding to the issues most significant for the young people in their region. By focusing on how policies are working as they are deployed in different places, we will be able to feed into policy and practitioner recommendations about ‘what works’ and the barriers that need to be overcome.
In our book Getting In and Getting On in the Youth Labour Market: Governing Young People’s Employability in Regional Context, we argued that although narratives about employability often located success or failure within the hands of the individual, local contextualised structures of opportunity and disadvantage are significant factors in determining young people’s outcomes. This new research will consider further the additional contextual factors that have arisen as a result of Covid-19, or perhaps thrown existing inequalities into further relief.
For updates on our research, please see our Evidence and Analysis section on our project webpage.