LAB meeting, UK

The first UK LAB meeting took place in London on 30th October 2014 and involved a wide-ranging discussion among a number of UK LAB members who are key stakeholders in the area of youth employment and school-to-work (STW) transitions in the UK.

The specific aims of the UK LAB meeting were to:

(i) present and receive feedback from the UK LAB members about the UK draft report (prepared as part of Task 3 of Work Package 3) on the situation of young people in the UK and the main policies affecting them, with a particular view at policy innovation and the context of implementation;

(ii) discuss in some detail the effectiveness of these policies, in particular for different youth groups, e.g. those not in employment, education and training (NEETs) as well as vulnerable young people;

(iii) identify strengths and weaknesses of current policies, including key gaps and challenges; and (iv) garner the UK LAB members’ views about how the effectiveness of current policies affecting young people can be improved  and their role as key stakeholders in this process.

Main issues of debate

Limited options for STW Transitions in the UK

There was consensus that there are currently too few options available for 16-18 year olds (A Levels for higher/further education, college, or apprenticeships). There is a gap in the market for a mainstream, informal, non-qualification driven educational paths, which are especially relevant for vulnerable young people with low educational attainment, at risk of social exclusion, who have had a bad experience of mainstream (general/academic education) schooling, etc. This is of particular importance for third sector organisations which have extensive experience and expertise in successfully (re) engaging disadvantaged young people (including in education and training) in a more informal, non-accredited way. Recently, support for 16-18 year olds education has moved from the Department for Education (DfE) to the Cabinet Office; the panel questioned whether this was a good idea. For some UK LAB members this will make youth-related issues of more strategic importance, while for others this signified a downgrading of the issues, with no political vision. That said, for some, the move of youth work to the Cabinet office (from DfE) was seen as a potentially positive development, because this may add a strategic or political dimension. In addition, school and home lives are intertwined, so policy needs a more holistic focus that just the school environment.

Inadequate/Ineffective Provision for NEETs

The current policy framework for tackling youth unemployment is too limited and rather uni- dimensional, in that it focuses on ‘employment at all costs’ (‘work first’ approach), sometimes supplemented by relevant education and training. Yet, especially for vulnerable/disadvantaged young people, including NEETs, one must consider the wider context and the multiple barriers they face, such as homelessness or mental health issues, as the problem of their effective STW transition required more holistic approaches that a pure focus on education and/or ‘a job at all costs’. To this end, the need for greater third sector engagement is paramount; however, the current NEET-related policy focus does not take sufficiently into account the extensive knowledge, expertise and experience of the charities sector in dealing with disadvantaged young people. This also relates to the issue of youth workers, who play an important role in (re) engaging disadvantaged young people. However, this important role has not been sufficiently recognised within the UK context, while funding cuts have resulted in reduced numbers. Even before the economic crisis and ensuing austerity programme, resources for young people were never sufficient. For example, the Connexions Careers Service employed about 7,000 staff instead of the envisioned 15,000 which was the number estimated as necessary for the provision of an adequate and effective careers service.

The importance of early intervention in the young people’s lives, especially those at risk of social and labour market exclusion was underlined as being the key in improving one’s employment chances. However, current outsourcing and contracting arrangements (e.g. Payment by Results in the Work Programme) means that contractors tend to focus on those young people who are closest to the labour market (‘low-hanging fruit’), and so, easy to place. This, in turn, means that young people who are more disadvantaged and furthest from the labour market are overlooked.

Young People’s Under-Employment; Horizontal and Vertical Skills Mismatch

As far as the UK’s young people are concerned, the issue is not just joblessness, but also under-employment and young people being ‘overqualified’ for the jobs they hold. For example, both horizontal and vertical skills mismatch among UK graduates appear to be high. In other words, UK graduates’ first jobs are more likely to be lower skilled and in fields not relevant to the subject they studied compared to their European counterparts. At a more general level, there is currently an imbalance between skills and needs (the workforce is overqualified in some areas, and under-qualified in others, particularly in manual crafts and trades) which can lead to redundant jobs and a scramble for ‘work for work’s sake’.

Strong Policy focus on Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships could be an extremely positive force, but need greater recognition and prestige for this to occur. More generally, there is a need for a greater development of entry level roles; apprenticeships could be further expanded, and the government could seek to encourage, develop, and support self-employment. Alongside these avenues, importance should be placed on key workers (teachers, nurses, social workers), and young people taking these on after finishing full-time education should be further incentivised. Although the current strong policy focus on apprenticeships has led to a major expansion, reflecting to some extend increased take-up by young people, most of this expansion refers to those aged over 24. In other words, in the last few years, the number of apprenticeships available to 16-18 year olds is falling, while there has been a step-change in growth for those age 25+, with those undertaken by young people aged 19-24 registering a modest increase.

Careers Advice of Variable Quality and Diversity/Breadth of STW Transition Options

Previous schemes of providing career advice to young people have been unsuccessful, leading to government caution in addressing this issue which is so important for effective STW transitions. For example, Connexions, a government programme for giving careers advice to young people, was discontinued due to issues relating to ineffective outsourcing, poor delegation, lack of adequate resources, and a general feeling of ephemerality. In addition, further education is too centralised, needing greater input from local authorities. That said, a standardised careers and advice service in schools could be a good thing to implement nationwide. Problems of non-standardisation have started to be extended to schools; the Academy programme leans on the further education model of independence and autonomy. Diversity in the provision of quality careers advice and guidance is required, with 16-18 year olds needing to understand that there is more to life than school. As a result, it could be good to promote colleges as a viable academic option. Similarly, one should promote the role of these colleges in providing vocational training (2/3 of 16-18 year olds are at colleges studying for A Levels, whole 30% of A-Levels are taken at colleges). However, there are currently a number of problems related to this, including the fact that schools and colleges are evaluated according to A-level results, thereby having no interest in promoting apprenticeships and/or other vocational education and training options. Moreover, since careers provision is the responsibility of schools, quality and breadth of advice can vary greatly.

Variable Employer Involvement in Schools

The panel agreed with the need to boost focus on ‘soft’ skills; communication, networking, team working, professional demeanour, etc. Employers can have a role to this end, going into schools and explaining what they look for in a candidate for a job. Yet, performing this role has yielded mixed and/or patchy results. Some employers have already developed a long-standing and sustained collaboration with schools. However, it was agreed that greater direction is needed from schools, government, and other stakeholders in order to offer valuable input and advice in how employers can best perform this role as well as in attracting a wider and more diverse number of employers, including SMEs. Moreover, contrary to the past, employers seem to have lost the habit of recruiting young people; there is very low direct recruitment from school (6% of employers)

Limited Financial Support/Bursaries

As well as promoting greater participation in education and training among young people, there is a need to focus on retention, especially in relation to vulnerable young people. The provision of adequate financial support such as bursaries and coverage of other study-related costs (e.g. travel costs) have proved to be helpful in improving attendance and retention. For example, they could keep 16-18 olds in education and skills training or even help them secure and maintain employment. Yet, the highly successful of the previous Government’s Education Maintenance Allowance is now closed in England (due to deadweight costs).

Strengths, Weaknesses, and Gaps in UK Policy

The general consensus was that there is not enough innovation in education and youth policies; one delegate suggested that the government was merely ‘reinventing the wheel’. As was argued, the government is also guilty of spin, since it is all too easy to display statistics in a way to vindicate policy. The UK is characterised by a high degree of policy centralisation and fragmentation, while there is a need for greater provision for unemployed youth on a more local scale. The problems are structural and deep-rooted; entrenched neoliberalism has shaken the foundations of welfare state. With regards to education, it is too early to assess the impact of the recent education reforms (less modular A-levels, Academies etc.).

There was common agreement that it is not particularly useful to completely disaggregate policies/interventions by age; keeping 14-19 year olds together as the target group of policies could be beneficial. This is representative of a wider propensity to fragment demographically, which needs to be addressed. Moreover, there is need for more formalised stakeholder consultation because some members felt that public/stakeholder consultations have, in many instances been cosmetic. In other words, decision had already been taken before the stakeholder consultation. A related point is that, given the highly centralised nature of England, successive governments seek to be seen to be inclusive, e.g. through consultations, while still remaining highly centralised.

There is also a need to address the limited life of various policies/agencies, i.e. the lack of continuity in youth-related interventions. For example, a number of projects/interventions commissioned by various Agencies have limited lifespan. Likewise, there is a need for a more holistic and integrated approach in addressing the STW transitions of young people, especially those with multiple disadvantages and barriers to labour market entry. For example, in relation to the new ‘large/mega secure colleges’ which are being set up for young offenders, the panel believed that these would be accompanied with substantial difficulties in relation to successful offender rehabilitation. Since 60% of offenders do not have basic skills and are functionally illiterate, a concerted effort should be made to improve their skills levels and, as a result, their employability. This applies to young offenders as well.

All UK LAB members stressed that the influence of the media (and their negative depiction of youth) and pervasiveness of public opinion cannot be understated, and is sometimes unhelpful. This contributes to hostility towards vulnerable groups (youth, migrants, the low-skilled). As was pointed out, young people’s general levels of qualifications are actually higher than employers tend to think. Consequently, these negative perceptions could be ameliorated by greater employer engagement.

Although the UK’s youth unemployment rate (16% in August 2014) is not as high as in many other countries, one should read the official statistics with caution because some of these are dubious. For example, young people’s informal/non-formal employment is not recorded, while there has also been a rise in self-employment. The latter is usually associated with lower levels of pay (self-employed people typically earn 40% less than employees, have no or low pension contributions, no holiday pay, etc.). Moreover, not a lot of information is available about the quality of employment, which in the UK, is usually low, especially for some groups of young people.

Targeted Groups

According to UK LAB members, it is unfair to design and categorise youth-related policies by age; instead, specific needs, ability, and socio-economic and other demographic characteristics can provide much more nuanced information, upon which to develop effective policies. As was argued, a maturity assessment, rather than arbitrary age breakdown, is perhaps better for assessing a young person’s specific needs and, as such, tailoring advice and intervention accordingly. Specifically, such an approach will tailor the help, support and services according to the young person’s specific needs and own capacity for resilience and self-reliance.

Job Centre Plus schemes need to focus more on preventing the ‘revolving door syndrome’ than only having people on an intervention for a short period of time. Yet, the focus of Jobcentre Plus is to move people off benefits as soon as possible instead of dedicating enough time and resources in ensuring that they move claimants to sustainable employment (‘revolving door’ syndrome). The role of Jobcentre Plus could be expanded to incorporate CV help, interview coaching, and continuing support when employment has been gained, especially by vulnerable/disadvantaged young people. Such support is more likely to help young people secure sustainable employment. One also needs to consider the fundamentals of employment and what constitutes a ‘job’; a part-time job that a 16-year old has may not have the same utility as a relevant job that a 24 year old has been in for two or three years.

Given the fact that a significant minority of young people lack basic and soft skills (28% of 16-18 in England are functionally innumerate and 14% are functionally illiterate), UK LAB members welcomed the Traineeship Programme; essentially a pre-apprenticeship training programme. As a result, young people who successfully complete it will have acquired the required level of basic skills which would allow them to secure an apprenticeship placement and/or job. Similar programmes have been successfully developed and implemented in Germany and Austria. Engagement needs to extend to both youth and employers, with support and incentives for both.

Current Stakeholders

There is currently a good level of consultation between government and third sector, but this is dependent on both the third sector itself and the relevant minister. Still, there is a need for government to trust third sector providers to deliver services to young people, not least because of their extensive experience, expertise and track-record in reaching out and engaging disadvantaged young people. However, this provision should be in addition to statutory provision (at the moment, due to extensive budget cuts, the third sector replaces in many cases statutory provision). A way that this could be achieved is by encouraging third sector to support the voice of young people, and acting as a representative for young people’s needs and interests.

Of the current stakeholders who are UK LAB members, several have schemes and agendas to support young people in the workforce. The CIPD has a mentoring scheme where accredited HR managers offer coaching sessions about job search advice, CVs, interview advice etc. Likewise, Catch-22, a charity, offers schemes to young offenders, and Citizens UK holds job fairs for disadvantaged youth to help them met employers and get a foothold in the labour market.

Policy Recommendations

The UK LAB members put forward the following recommendations:

  • Looking forward, the government should forecast growing sectors in the UK economy, and target promotion of jobs in these sectors
  • Qualifications could be embedded in higher education. For example, one participant pointed out that in the Philippines, nurses are trained over four years, and then have an internationally recognised qualification that many nurses take abroad.
  • There is an urgent need to improve the quality of employment of young people, so that their employment becomes safer and more secure/stable (as well as better paid in order to allow them to lead a full and independent life, get a foothold in the housing market, start a family, etc.). This could, to some extent, be achieved through greater regulation of zero hours contracts and similar interventions, focussing on career progression as well as getting young people into work. As was argued, there is a need for some kind of support once a young person secures a job as well as help in getting young people into work in the first place
  • UK LAB members highlighted the importance of young people’s votes and voting behaviour. For example, the Scottish referendum allowed 16- and 17-year olds to vote, and this area is under consideration. There is a precedent in Europe, with Austria lowering the voting age to 16 in 2007. As was argued, giving the right to vote to younger people (e.g. 16- and 17 year old) combined with more young people exercising their right to vote may induce all of the UK’s political parties to put young employment and related issues higher on their political agenda (at present these parties tend to cater more for the needs of older people who tend to vote, e.g. ‘silver power’)
  • It was suggested that it might be worth establishing a Government Department on STW Transitions/Youth which has a minister especially for young people for the UK and/or England and Wales. For example, Scotland has a Minister for Youth Employment and a Scottish Government School-to-Work Transitions Unit.
  • There is a need for more targeted apprenticeships to 16-18 year olds
  • Pre-apprenticeship training such as that provided by the Traineeship Programme can be effective in improving young people’s participation in education and training, including apprenticeships.
  • All UK LAB members agreed that one should focus on young people’s sustainable, long-term employment (as opposed to ‘any job’). To this end, one should consider safeguarding employment, including employment quality and related rights, terms and conditions, as well as improving employment retention rates
  • Measures for improving the quality of employment could include the need for employers to pay the living (as opposed to the national minimum) wage; the exception of tax credits/subsidies for employers who pay badly, etc.
  • It was suggested that one introduces less strict criteria for criminal records on job application forms (‘ban the box’). Some UK LAB members questioned the utility of the ‘criminal record box’ that needs to be checked on a job application form to state if an applicant has had criminal convictions, potentially hindering offender re-integration
  • There is need for high quality and more consistent as well as diverse careers advice for 16-17 year olds

The US ROCA project ( and its cognitive behavioural Intervention Model aimed at very disadvantaged and at-risk young people, including young offenders, is an interesting programme that EU policy makers might wish to study more closely

Location: IES, CAN Mezzanine, 49 – 51 East Road, London N1 6AH

Date: 30th October 2014


Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) Annie Peate

UNISON Christine Lewis

Tomorrow’s People Andrew Corley

Catch-22 Alvin Carpio

North London Citizens (NLC) Edward Badu

The Prince’s Trust Richard Rigby

Kari P Hadjivassiliou IES

Ariana Tassinari IES

Sam Swift IES

Christine Bertram IES