Commentary

Helping young people to navigate the COVID-19 job market

Mark De Backer

There is no doubt that the challenge the Government faces in rebuilding the UK’s economy is vast. The economic climate that the Chancellor outlined at his most recent Spending Review was sobering: 2.6 million people are expected to be unemployed by the middle of next year and the UK economy will not return to its pre-crisis size until the end of 2022.

This article was originally published by FE News.

It is therefore no surprise that one of the Chancellor’s major priorities was creating and protecting jobs. With the UK leading the way in COVID-19 vaccinations, there is a feeling among many that the end is in sight. This may be true in some regards – social distancing guidelines may well be relaxed, and shops and restaurants allowed to fully re-open – but it is increasingly clear that we are only at the beginning of the economic emergency. Over the last nine months, we have seen young people in particular bear the brunt of the economic impacts of COVID-19. Recent TUC analysis showed that 59,000 workers aged 16 to 24 lost their jobs in July to September this year, compared to 56,000 across all of 2019. In addition, we know that new graduates are struggling to find employment, and many believe that these challenges are still yet to peak.

Last month, the Chancellor announced that £2.9 billion would be spent on the Restart programme to help the long-term unemployed. This funding is assuredly welcome, but its real impact will be seen in how it is distributed and how it ties into initiatives which have already been announced. It is vital that there are routes into employment for young people and adults, such as traineeships for young people who need a stepping stone to apprenticeships, as well as sector-based work academies to help more unemployed individuals gain specific industry skills and training to boost their employability. However, there are issues which need careful consideration, such as ensuring that new unpaid traineeships do not compete with paid kickstart placements. At Education Development Trust, we would advocate for career ‘super highways’, which provide clear and speedy pathways for young people to get into employment – or at least be able to access opportunities. The goal of any of these schemes must always be to ensure that they ultimately lead to tangible employment opportunities. A patchwork of different opportunities, between which young people end up moving, would only add to confusion for those most in need of assistance.

This highlights – and raises – the importance of careers guidance

This highlights – and raises – the importance of careers guidance in helping young people to navigate the new employment landscape, as well as for adults who face forced changes to their careers as a result of the pandemic.  From our experience, we know that careers guidance is not only about presenting opportunities and information: critically, it is about helping people to make sense of this information and to make the best decisions for themselves. Whilst the Chancellor’s additional funding is very welcome, the true impact will be measured in how the funding is applied. All those affected by COVID-19 should be classified as a priority group, with upfront investment to be given to providers to ensure they can recruit and train the right staff. Moreover, whilst the emphasis on and increase in work coaches is valuable, this is needed alongside trained and qualified careers advisers, to ensure that people make the right long-term choices. This will in turn ensure economic growth post-COVID and post-Brexit, when the UK will need to consider adapting skills for the future economy and world of work.

Qualified careers advisers can help individuals make sense of labour market intelligence

Qualified careers advisers can help individuals make sense of labour market intelligence, based on good labour market information, which will be critical to helping people understand a changing labour market.

COVID-19 has probably done more to accelerate changes in working practices (including remote working, technological changes and automation) than any other event in the last fifty years. Ultimately, these changes mean we must consider the different jobs the future holds, but such a spotlight on jobs of the future must start with a focus on young people now.

An area which has often been overlooked...

An area which has often been overlooked – and in which there is no obvious investment – is careers advice and support for those young people still in school, who will soon transition into the working world. The current Year 11 and Year 13 cohorts will be facing tough choices about their next steps and, without adequate support, may only add to the NEET figures in a year’s time. We know from previous recessions that youth unemployment can peak some time after the initial crisis. It might already be too late to fund, plan and mobilise additional careers support for the current cohort of young people leaving school this year, but this only strengthens the need to plan for subsequent school leavers.

To ensure adequate support for all young people, a good starting point would be for the Department for Education to provide all secondary schools with funding to undertake the Quality in Careers Standard. The Quality in Careers Consortium has proposed this to the Department for Education and estimated that it would cost the Exchequer approximately £3 million per annum – a drop in the ocean compared to the more significant funds already being committed to proposed schemes. By undertaking the Quality in Careers Standard, which is already ‘strongly recommended’ by the Department for Education, schools would be able to give young people and their parents confidence that they were providing young people with the best possible start, in terms of the information available to them and pathways to support career choices. Careers would also be embedded throughout school life, better enabling young people to develop the skills and knowledge they need to navigate their careers.  

This could not be more vital in the coming months and years. Whilst the focus should be on helping those whose employment has been affected by COVID, we cannot ignore the fact that the pandemic will affect the employment market for years to come. Young people currently making decisions about future employment and training opportunities need effective support. Without this, the light at the end of the tunnel may be further away than we think.