Unemployment rates have been falling for six years in the UK, and the total number of unemployed young people, aged 18 to 24 has fallen from over a million in 2011 to under 500,000 by 2018. What’s more, fewer than 150,000 young people now claim employment-related benefits such as Jobseekers Allowance or Universal Credit. More than 80% of this group will move off benefits within six months, and more than 90% within a year.
But moving off benefits may not mean moving into work. According to our estimates, based on data from government statistics service NOMIS, while unemployment rates among benefits claimants have fallen, the rate of young people who are eligible for unemployment benefits has risen steadily.
This means that a growing number of young people are not receiving any official help from government. This could be for a variety of reasons; they might be suffering from ill health, being supported by parents or friends or working in the informal economy. Many will be experiencing hardship, some will be homeless, and none will be receiving government support such as information, advice and guidance to prepare them for work.
The size of this group has doubled over the last six years. Yet we have very little comprehensive data on who this group are and what they are doing. This is concerning, because periods of unemployment at a young age are associated with lifelong scarring effects: whether that’s reduced earnings or negative impacts on physical and mental health.
Hidden from statistics
Many young people who aren’t claiming benefits may find work relatively quickly. But for others, who face greater barriers to employment, the period might be longer. Welfare reforms have introduced more stringent conditions, which people must meet to receive benefits, as well as sanctions if these conditions are not followed. And these changes have significantly increased the number of people who don’t claim benefits at all.
With colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University, and the universities of Warwick and Birmingham and Cambridge Economic Associates, I have been leading the evaluation of the Big Lottery Fund’s £108m Talent Match programme: a five-year programme launched in 2013 to support this group of young unemployed people, who are often hidden from the official statistics.
Two things set the programme apart from other employment programmes: it was led by local voluntary and community sector organisations working across 21 Local Enterprise Partnership areas in England. And more significantly young people themselves helped to design and deliver the programme.
These organisations engaged young people in partnership groups, and provided training and support for young people to act as peer mentors. But above all they ensured that the programme helped to realise the hopes and cater to the needs of its young participants.
Support to succeed
Since 2014, the programme has supported over 25,000 young people. A quarter of young people who joined the programme reported having experienced mental ill-health, around 16% had experienced homelessness and 12% had a conviction for a criminal offence.
The support provided was wide ranging and varied according to individual needs: nearly all of the young people received one-to-one support, and had the option to get help with career planning, personal development, counselling and financial support.
In terms of the headline outcomes of the programme, 41% of participants had got a job and 18% held onto that job for at least six months. Nearly half (46%) had done a work placement or taken up an opportunity to volunteer. But perhaps most significantly, 78% of Talent Match participants who initially recorded a low well-being score (for example, in terms of life satisfaction) went on to record a higher score at a later stage.
Statistics are important, but for the moment they provide an incomplete estimate of the level of youth employment. Our research shows that we need to start tackling youth unemployment in new ways. This means getting young people involved in the design and delivery of programmes, and understanding that the journey to employment is rarely straightforward – it can involve setbacks, as well as progress.
It’s time to start thinking about the process of supporting young people to get jobs as a partnership between the public, private and voluntary sectors, while recognising that improving young people’s well being is as important as the job itself.