Creating work for young people hit by Covid slump

The pandemic is having a huge impact on the ability of students to find employment or training when they leave compulsory education. Zofia Niemtus considers how colleges can help 16- to 24-year-olds to avoid becoming a government statistic
8th January 2021, 12:05am
Youth Unemployment: How Can Colleges Help Students To Find Jobs During The Coronavirus Recession?


Creating work for young people hit by Covid slump

What is the biggest challenge that your students currently face? There's no shortage of options here: we know that Covid-19 has taken a huge toll on young people in many ways, from the stress created by the exam results algorithm in the summer to the reports of growing mental health issues and inaccessible support services. 

But perhaps one of the most worrying effects of coronavirus for students who are just getting ready to leave compulsory education is the impact that the pandemic is having on employment.

A report released by the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) in October, titled Generation Covid and Social Mobility: Evidence and Policy, found that young workers were twice as likely as older colleagues to have lost their jobs since
the start of the pandemic. 

And, according to Stephen Machin, the author of the report and co-director of the CEP, the "potential scarring effects of the experience seem to disproportionately affect those who were disadvantaged before the crisis started".

The challenge now, during an already turbulent time for colleges, is to prevent more young people from becoming Neet (not in education, employment or training), either as a result of students being unable to start their apprenticeships or other study and training programmes, or by dropping out. 

So, what can colleges do here? Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), released in November, give cause for cautious optimism. The number of young people who are classed as Neet is currently lower than in previous years, partly because of an increase in how many are in full-time education. 

But there is still a lot of work to be done to make sure that those numbers of young people in education translate to numbers in employment - and that starts with identifying which current students are most likely to face difficulties.

In many ways, keeping track of those who may be at risk of becoming Neet is nothing new for colleges; attendance and attainment are carefully monitored and those who are struggling will be offered support. But making sure that those harder-to-reach-students don't fall through the cracks has been a challenge during this period, says Jackie Chapman, operations director for Capital City College Training in London. 

"Previously, we would have [worked with those students] face to face because often that's the best way to build relationships and engage these young people," she says. 

She explains that the group's European Social Fund Neet programme (which supports those aged 16-24 who are Neet in 12 London boroughs) was "very successful" in creating individual learning programmes - often based around digital skills and improving confidence - with a progression rate into jobs of about 40 per cent. That dropped down to around 20 per cent when Covid hit, because "the engagement with the individuals was much harder and the possibilities of them moving into a role were also significantly impacted". 

Digital poverty has been a major factor here, she continues, along with broader motivation issues, particularly when the second lockdown was introduced. "They're asking, 'Why should I bother now because we're going to just go through this time and time again?'" 

Beyond our control

How can colleges overcome that issue of motivation, when circumstances are still very much out of everyone's control? Julie Nugent, director of skills and productivity at West Midlands Combined Authority, says conversations with businesses are a key part
of her region's approach to tackling the Neet concerns, as this is what leads to concrete opportunities, even when times are tough.

She says that there is positivity around Kickstart, the government's programme, launched in September for young people aged 16-24 who are receiving universal credit and at risk of long-term unemployment. It aims to tackle the issue of youth unemployment by enabling employers to offer subsidised six-month work placements (including training and support). 

"A lot of employers are really keen to try Kickstart, which is encouraging," she says. "But they are worried. We're having conversations to work out how training providers can meet their needs. There's a lot around green jobs and digital, and things like electrification. We're working alongside employers to try to understand and put on programmes that are fit for purpose." 

Chapman and her colleagues are having similar conversations in London. "We're talking to employers to find out what they think is going to happen in the next two or three years," she says. "To be sustainable, we need to know where the opportunities
are going to be." 

The results so far have been "a complete mix", she says, with "some SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] barely hanging
in there", while others are "adapting their business and becoming more entrepreneurial, and getting young people involved".

The pandemic has certainly changed the world of work and that means that colleges are having to do things differently, too. 

Kurt Hintz is interim executive principal of Capital City College Group and says that the group's three colleges - College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London; Westminster Kingsway College; and City and Islington College - have become more dynamic in meeting the skills needs of the community, with more freedom around funding from the Greater London Authority, enabling more agile responses than in previous times. 

"We are monitoring [jobs data and vacancies] much more carefully than we normally would do," he explains. "We're adapting, particularly around short courses, with a lot of that information feeding
directly into those." The group's colleges all offer free short courses, he continues, many of which are "skills based and then lead on to a qualification". 

"Effectively, we can look at areas where we may not have suitable programmes and, within weeks, we've already got something
up online, whether it's virtual or face to face," says Hintz. "We've put on a huge range of short courses for adults and young people
to support those who are falling out of employment or don't have a job to go to. They might want either a sharp improvement in skills or to upskill into a different area, or they might need confidence-building." 

Having a wider range of courses available is part of the solution, as is making it possible for young people to pick up courses more frequently during the year, he continues. 

"The danger for young people falling out of work or training in the next couple of months is that there might not be an opportunity to start a new programme until September," he says. 

Nugent agrees that more fluidity is needed to prevent the numbers of young people classed as Neet from rising. "We're looking at the very fluid nature of the labour market and trying to make sure we have entry points for young people throughout the year so, if you do drop out, you can restart in January," she says. "That's challenging to do with current operating models for colleges but it's something that we're really keen to work with the sector on. 

"The way that the current system operates, a lot of the success measures and funding mechanisms work against colleges being able to do what they need and want to do - that flexible in-year support built around what people need, not what you get funded to do." 

It's a change that's already taking place in some colleges. Neil Coates, vice-principal for adults, apprenticeships and partnerships at London South East Colleges, explains that they have recently launched a January start programme for courses in construction, engineering, health, personal training and access to nursing. He adds that his colleges are also working with the South East London Chamber of Commerce to "launch a new 'young chamber' to develop entrepreneurial skills for business start-ups". 

Of course, changes and initiatives such as these require funding. But Nugent says that there are some experimental approaches to funding taking place that are allowing colleges to be more innovative in their offering to young people. She gives the example of the level 3 drone technology course currently being piloted at Solihull College.  

"We've heard from construction employers that they want people who can operate drones and the college was really interested in doing it," she says. "But one of the things they were worried about was if they didn't recruit and ended up taking a hit. It wouldn't have been massive, but even £100,000 to a small college in this climate is not great. 

"So we said we'd pay for the course output rather than individual learners. Not forever but for the first year or so just to see how it goes. We said we'd de-risk it, and they could put it on in a way that meets the needs of local employers, and we'd fund it differently." 

This kind of "grassroots" funding initiative has the potential to provide opportunities for those young people lucky enough to be able to access them. But could there be even bigger changes on the horizon? 

In the CEP report, Stephen Machin and his colleagues suggest a series of recommendations that could help create a fairer landscape for young people who have been disproportionately disadvantaged by Covid-19. Among their proposals is a full guaranteed job scheme, broader than the current Kickstart offering and closer to the youth training schemes of the 1980s.  

The exam conundrum

Machin also highlights the urgent need for a fairer approach to exams in the coming seasons to allow for the vastly different educational experiences that young people had during lockdown.

"This argument has been around for quite some time, long before the debacle of the climbdown from using the government algorithm this summer," he says. 

"How anybody could design such a naive algorithm, without thinking about the consequences for disadvantage, I just do not know, but that happened. And that's stimulated recognition that something has
to change. People have been talking for some time about contextual admissions and it seems like something will be done now;
the nettle's been grasped.

"In other countries, more people are admitted to universities and FE colleges, with much more wide entrance," Machin continues. "And then some people leave after a year because it's not right for them. Widening out the participation would seem to be a sensible thing now, given the disparity of experiences people have had. It could
just be a one-off or until things settle down." 

There is an opportunity here for a rethink. Hintz believes that the current challenges could ultimately bring welcome changes to
the sector. "Colleges used to be like barges; very difficult to turn," he says. 

"But we turn on a dime at the moment and that's pretty incredible to see. Partly that is down to some of that flexibility we've been getting through funding. I can't stress enough how important that's been for us to be able to be incredibly reactive." 

Zofia Niemtus is interim deputy commissioning editor for Tes

This article originally appeared in the 8 January 2021 issue under the headline "Creating work for young people hit by Covid slump"

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