fbpx Blog: Small Business, Big Opportunity - London Youth

13 December 2018

Young people and youth organisations consistently tell us that employment and job prospects are among the biggest concerns that young people have about their lives. In London, the situation is particularly challenging.

In 2014, we launched our first employability offer, Talent Match London, to young people aged 18-24. Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, London Youth led a partnership of organisations that tested innovative youth-led solutions to unemployment and supported over 2,500 young Londoners who had been out of education, employment and training for at least 12 months, towards sustainable employment.

Through a distinctive ‘youth work’ approach to employability, Talent Match London aimed, not only to get young people into jobs, but also to equip them with the skills, capabilities and desire to navigate a fulfilling career.

To ensure the programme was a success, we engaged and partnered with employers to give young people an insight into the world of work. We wanted to create specific job opportunities, help young people become job ready, and help employers to be better able to support and sustain them in jobs. Our approach was successful with large businesses, which were able to work with us to co-design opportunities for young people to explore and experience the world of work before applying for employment. However, this success did not translate when working with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across our capital.

To help us understand why, we commissioned research comprising in-depth interviews with over a dozen SMEs, asking them about their recruitment practices, future challenges, and their attitudes towards young people. Interviews were semi-structured, and questions were designed in a way that prompted discussion.

Recruitment practices

We found SMEs recruited new staff in a range of ways, but the two most common ways were advertising on industry or more general job search websites or using personal and professional networks for recommendations.

“Really at the end of the day, for the most part we need to advertise ourselves or we need to make enquiries of people who we know and may be able to get us people. We don’t use agencies, we tend to work more on recommendation.”

The majority of those we spoke to would not use a recruitment agency, partly due to the cost. The exception was hospitality businesses, which often use agencies to fill staffing shortages with late notice.

Lack of training and resources

The key recruitment challenge for the SMEs we spoke to was the lack of resources and capacity available to them. Firstly, the overwhelming number of applications combined with the importance of getting the right candidate the first time round, is a real capacity issue for many SMEs.

“We received 140 applications…So that’s the biggest challenge so far,  to make sure the right talent gets noticed.”

Secondly, the lack of resources meant that SMEs recruitment focused on the ability of a candidate to adapt and thrive in a working environment with limited training or supervision. Some SMEs, such as those in hospitality, could only recruit candidates who already had the skills.

“I guess it was a combination of experience but also willingness to learn new process and systems and implement new processes, and bringing someone to the business whose skillset wasn’t already there and their ability to crack on with it without constant supervision.”

“Because our restaurant is so busy, we struggle finding the time to dedicate to training. Because of this, we have to be more strict within our recruiting to ensure the skills are already there.”

Where training was provided by SME employers, it was often on the job, or for a very short amount of time.

“That’s just because we are obviously a small business, there’s more learning on the job, getting involved, etc.”

“Sometimes they mess up but you don’t really worry about it because this is the only way people can learn, right? This way they really catch up really quickly.”

Expectations of young people

There were a range of responses from SMEs regarding their ideal candidate for a job, but the majority focused on having the soft skills, right attitude, and capability to learn on the job.

We found that often the qualities that SMEs stated they were looking for from a young person reflected their fears of hiring one. All the participants we spoke to emphasised ‘having the right attitude’ over all other criteria, such as qualifications or experience.

“I would settle for willingness to learn and open mindedness over any degree.”

This was often matched by a fear that young people often do not have the right attitude or apply for work for the wrong reasons.

Similarly, those who prioritised attendance as a desirable trait, also went on to state that young people were more likely to be late.

“Attendance! Punctuality! Well-presented, taking care of themselves in the mornings…I’ve had a few interns, not many were awful, but some were really bad. Turning up late or really slow, lazy.”

In this sense, it seems many SMEs constructed their ideal youth candidate in opposition to the fears and negative perceptions they had of young people in the workplace.

Incentives to hire young people

For the majority of SMEs we spoke to, the main way to incentivise them to take on young people was to increase the availability of support provided to them. In some cases this meant financial support, but for the majority this meant increased support recruiting and coordinating placements.

“Maybe some kind of organisation where all placements and work experience could happen in a  structured way for two weeks.”

Many SMEs simply lacked the capacity to provide a structure, a work plan, and supervision of a young person.

“If they can help structure how the internship would work and give me guidance on the best way to do it and match me with someone who is interested.”

Provided with basic coordination support, many of the SMEs we spoke to were keen on supporting young people. Especially when the young person had a link to the local area.

“I believe quite strongly in localism in general and supporting locals who are trying to make a living in the local area because I think that benefits the area a lot.”


  1. SMEs should join business-led networks, such as Movement to Work, that support employers to provide work placements that combine employability skills training with on-the-job experience. Like-minded organisations can share learning and best practice to reap the benefits of young talent with minimum investment up-front.
  2. Over the last five years, Talent Match London delivery partners has engaged with more than 2,500 young people, who have been unemployed but not engaged with statutory support services. SMEs should partner with local community organisations and charities to reach out to and connect with these young people, who could offer so much talent to their organisations.
  3. Even though there are potentially many more opportunities in London than in other parts of the country, programmes and organisations are not well coordinated. Young people, who are out of work, particularly those facing the biggest barriers, find the system very hard to navigate. Funding should be made available for regional organisations to connect community organisations and SMEs.

Matt Dronfield, Senior Employability Manager


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