Young people had it tough before the pandemic. They live in a society where they face enormous pressures to perform in exams, to live up to a social media ideal, and adapt to a rapidly changing workplace that is more digitally advanced than ever.
COVID-19 exacerbated the challenges they face. In September 2020, the unemployment rate for young people peaked at 14.8%. Today, over 200,000 more young people aged 18 to 24 are claiming unemployment benefits than before the crisis, an increase of 88%. Many have faced two years of disrupted education, keeping them from their studies and their friends. With furlough due to end, we don’t know yet how many young people may be laid off in the coming months. It’s also unclear how their mental health will be impacted in the longer term. I was so pleased to hear former Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins tell us about the importance of properly addressing mental health in our schools as part of recovery.
Despite this, young people are resilient. We have made every effort to speak to as many of them as possible during our inquiry into youth unemployment and we’ve heard first-hand how different the experience of moving from education to work can be. Not all young people want to go to university. Some want to earn and learn by doing an apprenticeship, others want to get hands on experience with T Levels, and some want to start their own business. Whatever their journey, all the young people we’ve spoken to have been articulate, engaged and ambitious, despite the challenges they may have faced.
As a former Victims’ Commissioner, I know all too well the barriers facing some young people and the struggle they face navigating the maze of schemes and initiatives available to them. Some young people may have been through significant trauma, have lost family or friends, had difficult family lives, spent time in a Pupil Referral Unit, care, or been involved with the criminal justice system. There is no silver bullet for these young people, many of whom may have already lost faith in the system by the time it comes to thinking about getting a job.
Individual support is invaluable in supporting the most disadvantaged on this journey. They need one-to-one support from someone they know and trust, who can build their basic literacy and numeracy skills, and their confidence. Whether that’s a work coach in a youth hub or a careers adviser at college, guiding them towards the right track for them relies on listening to their stories and providing personalised support.
This needs to be tailored not only to personal circumstance, but also to the opportunities in their local area. Raised in Lancashire, I want to make sure that all young people grow up in a community they are proud of, where great opportunities are available for all. In the North West, Edge Foundation research shows that 36% of people work in occupations most hit by lockdown like retail, a sector in which lots of young people have their first jobs. Like them, I had one of my first jobs in a greengrocer’s shop. To address this, we need ‘levelling up’ to be more than just a slogan, and for the Government and business to invest beyond the south-east so that we attract and retain skilled young people to all parts of the country.
In order to achieve this, young people have to be aware of the full range of opportunities open to them. Growing up, I was told I should go into nursery care, but I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. We’ve heard from young people that careers advice is still lacking despite improvements like the Gatsby Benchmarks. We need to ensure our children know all the routes on offer after 16, and that they are being guided towards a path that is right for them. We need more mentors for these young people, and to make sure they have enough time to help them make informed decisions about their future.
When they do achieve that first step on the ladder, we’ve heard from employers and young people that they discover that they don’t have the right skills for work. It’s clear that we need to think carefully about the role of the national curriculum, but we also need to help ensure that employers invest in their young employees to build their skills and support their wellbeing.