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06 February 2015

Rosie Ferguson, Chief Executive at London Youth writes about how we are rethinking the way 'hidden; young people are supported into work. 

Blog was originally published here: 

http://newstartmag.co.uk/features/dont-let-us-new-approach-youth-employability/ 

Some estimates say we spend £5bn per year on benefits for 16-24 year olds in the UK. That is a serious amount of money.

It seems amazing with that amount of money, and the associated employability industry, that there are any young people who are unemployed at all. But there are.

And through successive governments, economic cycles and fashions of policy response, there have remained a percentage of those young people for whom the barriers to employment are simply too high for them to overcome.

Young people like JG, a young father, struggling with gang victimisation on a South London estate who lost trust in social services when he believed his son would be taken into care, and so was scared to engage with Jobcentre Plus or other support programmes. So even if there were programmes or opportunities that could help JG into work, he wasn’t able to access them because he had no one who would refer him into them.

In 2014 the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion estimated the number of ‘hidden’ young Londoners – those not claiming out-of-work benefits, just like JG – at 35,000.

So something really isn’t working. With investment from the Big Lottery Fund, London Youth has for the last 12 months been leading a partnership of over 30 voluntary sector organisations aimed at a new approach to supporting young people into work.

To begin, we asked why so many programmes don’t work – and then tried to design something that does. Probably the first bit of learning imaginable was something that is so often missed: to listen to the young people themselves. In business – and increasingly in public services – if you are creating something that you want people to engage with, you need to ask them about what their needs are. But for whatever reason young people who are out of work have been the exception to this. They have programmes ‘delivered to’ them; or services ‘targeted at’ them.Talent Match London is different, and has a series of youth advisory boards built into its day-to-day governance and operations.

Jamel, from the strategic youth board, explains: ‘I loved the way it was designed by young people – so everything we hoped to achieve was bound up in their hopes. Our determination was to help young people no matter what issues they have and no matter how long it took, to find their place in life and successfully support them into training, education or full-time work in their chosen field’.

As well as engaging young people the language used is important. Who would readily and happily engage in a programme which labelled them as Neet? Defining young people in negative terms leads to negative thinking, and as a result, risks negative outcomes.

Another reason for programmes not reaching those who need them most, as JG’s story showed, is the lack of outreach. Countless young people told us of difficult experiences with Jobcentre Plus, where invariably initial assessments and referrals take place. To a young person dealing with complex issues, this can be so hard that it stops them from getting benefits or support. So outreach is vital. In Hackney, where the local CVS is the Talent Match London lead partner, a group of young people calling themselves ‘Talent Scouts’ find other young people who aren’t engaged and who wouldn’t be found by ‘officials’ and bring them into the programme.

Employers of course have to be part of the solution – there are no jobs without them. But again, our learning has been that while many have a determined approach to supporting new talent in their organisations, for just as many others there are frustrations when young people are referred to them who they perceive as not ‘job ready’. So employers too need to be involved from the start of the journey, and supported so that they can genuinely help and be accessible to those coming into work.

And as delivery partners ourselves, we’ve realised that we need to learn and adapt. Many employability programmes have such rigid contracts and targets that innovation is impossible. The commitment to learning – and to managing partnership – can’t be underestimated, and successful programmes will be those that invest in that infrastructure. It isn’t always easy, but you need to make it work.

Finally, young people told us to focus on aspirations, not jobs. So often they are offered a limited choice of roles: retail assistant; security officer; hairdresser. And for many who haven’t been exposed to networks of people in jobs, or haven’t had useful or consistent career guidance, they don’t know what the possibilities are.

At Collage Arts in Haringey the young people they have worked with include two young women with learning disabilities but with a shared interest in art and storytelling. The women have been helped to collaborate and produce a graphic novel about personal issues. The IT support and personal development offered by Collage Arts have enabled them to develop a finished project for a talk that is now being used by an independent graphic novel publisher. This has opened doors and created opportunities for the women that they would never have been aware of previously.

So there’s a lot to think about. But a year in and we are seeing progress. Because it is a programme designed to test new ideas, Talent Match London hasn’t got huge targets to meet. But we do want to make sure we are getting to the people who need us – and of the 366 people we’ve worked with so far, one third are on JSA, a third on other benefits and a third receiving no support at all – so in situations like that faced by JG.

At one of the first meetings of the Talent Match London Youth Board, the young people asked to do a presentation about what they wanted from the programme. It covered some of what I’ve described here, and was a great eye-opener for me and the other partners in the room. And the most important bit was their last slide, which just contained the words: ‘don’t let us down’. All of us involved in supporting young people into work should hold that thought, and start from there.