Helping unemployed young people to find private-sector work

Lisa Russell, Ron Thompson and Robin Simmons
7th Feb 2014

This study looks at the experiences of two young people entering work in private-sector companies.

What challenges do unemployed young people face when trying to get private-sector jobs?

With the amount of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET) currently a significant concern to policy-makers, this study looks at the experiences of two young people entering work in private-sector companies.

It also considers whether employers, policy-makers and training-providers could do more to help.

The study finds:

  • While the NEET population is diverse, the most vulnerable young people are at greater risk of long-term disadvantage and need more personalised support.
  • Employers emphasised ‘soft skills’ like self-motivation and communication. But despite the fact that formal qualifications were often not important for the jobs available, there was evidence of qualifications being used to screen applications.
  • Training and advice practitioners need to ensure that young people are properly prepared for job searches and applications. This includes developing soft skills and training in more formal practices, such as how to tailor an application to a particular job.
  • Continuing support during work placements is important for young people, but the roles of employers and support services need to be agreed, clearly communicated and carried out accordingly. If these relationships break down, the impact on young people can be detrimental.
Summary

Summary

Key points

  • Policy-makers need to be most concerned about the transitions of vulnerable NEET young people. While the NEET population is diverse, the most vulnerable young people are at greater risk of long-term disadvantage and need more personalised support.
  • The young people in these case studies wanted to work, but entry to employment was made harder by the costs of seeking work, including the need for internet access to apply for jobs and initial travel-to-work costs.
  • Employers emphasised ‘soft skills’ like self-motivation and communication. Formal qualifications were often not important for the jobs available to these young people, but there was evidence of qualifications being used to screen applications.
  • Training and advice practitioners need to ensure that young people are properly prepared for job search and application procedures. This includes developing soft skills and training in formal application processes, such as how to tailor an application to a particular job and online job searching.
  • Continuing support during work placements is important for young people, but the roles of employers and support services need to be agreed, clearly communicated and carried out accordingly. If these relationships break down, the impact on young people can be detrimental.
  • Where employers have well-developed support structures for newer employees, these can be particularly important for ex-NEET young people. Such support includes formal induction and training, mentoring arrangements and progression opportunities.

Background

This study examined the employment practices of two multinational private-sector companies providing work to two young people who had recently been not in education, employment or training (NEET). Little is known about this aspect of young people’s transitions into the labour market, but it is especially important given the increasing concern about the growing numbers of NEET young people. Policy-makers need to be particularly concerned about the transitions of vulnerable NEET young people.

Vulnerable NEET young people

Young people who have spent substantial periods of time not in education, employment or training face significant challenges when trying to enter or re-enter the labour market. The NEET category is far from homogeneous, but vulnerable NEET young people are likely to experience the most difficulty. Vulnerable NEET young people include:

  • those with few or no qualifications and minimal work experience;
  • those experiencing personal and social barriers to participation, such as learning difficulties, caring responsibilities or early parenthood;
  • those with unstable circumstances as a result of factors such as estrangement from family or youth offending;
  • those with negative experiences of education or employment.

Experiencing sustained periods out of work at a young age can have a lasting negative impact on young people’s future earning and employment potential, and those who do find employment are more likely to be in low-paid, low-skilled and insecure work. However, while vulnerable NEET young people are known to be disadvantaged in the labour market, less is known about previously NEET young people working in the private sector, or how support services work with employers and young people as they attempt to enter the labour market. Understanding these issues and their implications were central to this research.

Young people’s pathways into work

The two young people participating in this study were eager to work, but encountered a number of obstacles to employment. Their case studies showed that the costs associated with accessing the internet to pursue job applications create difficulties for some young people, and that the costs of taking up employment can also be a significant barrier – for example, the costs of travelling to work, especially in the initial period prior to getting paid.

Employers and information, advice and guidance (IAG) practitioners emphasised the growing importance of formal job search and application processes, often including online applications. However, the two young people in this study had tended to resort to personal contacts and other informal methods of application, such as dropping off CVs, when more formal procedures were unsuccessful. This was partly borne of frustration and partly a result of disadvantage, with lack of ready internet access a particular problem in one case.

Employers, IAG practitioners and training providers commented that a significant number of young people they encountered were underprepared to look for work effectively. They indicated that young people were disadvantaging themselves in the labour market through poor self-presentation skills, inability to express a clear desire to work for the particular organisation applied to, and the use of inappropriate job-search strategies.

For the types of job available to the young people in the case studies, academic qualifications were not formal requirements. However, there was some evidence that academic qualifications were used as part of a screening process and/or as a proxy for ‘soft skills’ such as motivation and communication skills. The research found that employers could sometimes have a negative regard for skills acquired informally – for example, through working with relatives. Both companies taking part in this study preferred to train young employees in the specific skills they required, and said that they did not necessarily see lack of work experience as a disadvantage.

There is currently considerable policy focus on young people getting experience in the workplace, especially through apprenticeships. While this is an important pathway for many young people, the case studies reflected wider concerns about finding employers to take on apprentices, the quality of some work placements and, at times, a lack of clarity among employers about what is and is not an apprenticeship. Furthermore, continuing support offered to young people as they enter work or work placements is not always delivered in practice. The impact of this on young people can be detrimental.

Understanding young people’s experiences of work is important. The contribution that employers’ behaviour can make to young people’s initial experiences of the workplace is key. Support structures for young people and the practices of training providers and careers guidance practitioners also play an important role in preparing young people for the job search and application procedures that employers prefer.

Conclusion

The findings from this study of former NEET young people entering private-sector employment have implications for policy and practice.

Support for vulnerable NEET young people

Sound advice and guidance for young people about their labour-market options remains elusive. Too often, support is not personalised and young people’s aspirations not adequately taken into account. High quality face-to-face advice and guidance is particularly important for vulnerable NEETs. This should include soft skills development and training in strategies for job application, including how to tailor an application to a particular job. Support and training also need to explicitly recognise the growing importance of online job search and application processes, including help to access free internet facilities.

Support services also need to recognise the barriers to employment presented to some NEET young people by the additional costs of job search and travel. Wider access to funding – whether in the form of a small grant, a loan or a combination of the two – could help.

The relationship between employer and support providers

Continuing support for some young people as they enter work or work placements is important. But the respective roles of employers and support services need to be agreed, clearly communicated and delivered on. Some form of agreement between support services, the employer and the young person, setting out their respective roles and responsibilities, could help. If trialled and found effective, these agreements could become a condition of publicly-funded employer subsidies.

Employers

Employers also have an important role to play in supporting young people’s transitions into work. Practices like formal induction and training, mentoring arrangements and clear opportunities for progression were important in one of the case studies. This shows that well-established structures for socialising new employees into the workplace can have a considerable impact on motivation, self-esteem and progression. Employers need to review or establish workforce development policies to support young employees as they enter the organisation.

Employers could also take practical steps to ease young people’s transition into work, such as flexible arrangements for initial payment to help with the costs of transport to work, and providing benefits in kind such as lift-share schemes or the loan of equipment.

About the project

The research involved case studies of two young men (aged 17 and 18). One case study, located in the north of England, was in a town centre branch of a popular restaurant chain. The other was in a construction company working on a large building project in the south-west of England. Through qualitative interviews, participant observation and documentary analysis, the research explored the perspectives of the two young employees, together with the views of managers, Jobcentre Plus staff and careers guidance practitioners.

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