Youth employment – the missing facts
Despite a small fall in the overall unemployment rate, nearly one million under-25s are unemployed. Recent work by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR, 2014) found that the traditional link between youth employment and economic growth has broken. Psychological research in this area mostly focuses on the issues of young people’s motivation, lack of preparation for the world and long transitions between education and work. What the research fails to consider is how few entry-level jobs are offered to young people.
More than 950,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are unemployed in the UK today; and the jobless rate is 3.74 times the adult rate (IPPR, 2014) up from 3.5 times the adult rate a year ago. It is not widely known that less than 25 per cent of UK companies employ under-24s, and less than 6 per cent will take on under-18s (UKCES, 2011, p.14). The decrease in entry-level jobs available to young people has been happening over the last 15 years, regardless of the economic climate (IPPR, 2014; SKOPE, 2012).
Examining detailed data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) (March 2014: tinyurl.com/p5yyk5p) highlights the flows of young people to and from employment, unemployment, inactivity (e.g. looking after home or family) and education. With the number of young people in full-time education having increased significantly (from 1.42 million in 1984 to 3.03 million at the end of 2013), there are fewer young people in the labour market than before. Therefore unemployment rates expressed as a proportion of the potential labour force (currently 20 per cent) can be misleading. Nevertheless, recent data from the ONS (November 2013: tinyurl.com/mbnfkva) highlights that young people (16–24) are 2.6 times more likely to flow from employment to unemployment than those aged over 40 years.
The youth unemployment issue affects everyone in our society: young people and parents are strained and anxious about their futures; educators strive to give young people the best start to their working lives; and national government seeks to support and address the health and welfare issues of young people not in work, while at the same time being aware of the financial and longer-term economic issues facing an ageing society and long-term unemployment. Recruiters and managers claim to be seeking young talent to compensate for ageing workforces, but this does not appear to be adding to the jobs available to young people.
How are psychologists making sense of this situation, and what models and theories are guiding our activities?
The changing workplace
Current social arrangements of work are very different now from what they were 50 years ago (Savickas et al., 2009). Proliferation of work associated with industrialisation of the 20th century enabled the development of hierarchical work relationships and stable work patterns. These supported a step-wise development of knowledge, skills and abilities, often represented by the stage models of career development (Levinson, 1976; Super, 1957, 1990). As individuals matured and gained in skills and experience they progressed to the next level of organisational hierarchy. It was this upwards progression that gave young people opportunities to enter trades and professions at the beginning of their work experience.
But this is no longer true in the 21st century. Work arrangements are reacting to a labour market contraction, in response to economic recession and the challenges to local production and processing represented by increasing globalisation. Job prospects are less stable and more short-term, making the maintenance of full employment difficult and opportunities for upwards progression scarce. Many people are responding to these issues by taking a series of jobs, many of them part-time, or developing their own employment opportunities. Career planning needs to be more flexible and responsive to available opportunities; driven by the individual’s search for meaning at work, as opposed to being shaped solely by the needs and aspirations of employing organisations (Duarte, 2004). Explanatory theories of careers as stages and transitions must give way to flexible, individually driven and adaptive strategies that encourage young people to make the best of the scarce opportunities available for entry-level positions.
However, adopting adaptive career strategies is a difficult response for young people looking for a beginning to their work experience. Educators and careers advisers need to build new models of support to encourage adaption to less predictive situations. Consider dominant paradigms of career guidance, such as vocational matching (Holland, 1997) and person–environment fit as applied to individual and organisation needs (Schein, 1978). These may still be available to a privileged few whose personal and family networks offer career opportunities, or whose high standards of education allow entrance to knowledge working roles, but this is not the case for the majority of young people looking for work.
Examining flows of young people between employment, unemployment, inactivity and education in recent reports from the ONS (tinyurl.com/p5yyk5p; tinyurl.com/mbnfkva) reveals a mixed pattern of tactics being used by young people. They are most likely to work in the lowest-skilled jobs (such as service and sales assistants), which for some are convenient to fit in around educational activities (27 per cent of full-time students work). There is a high incidence of churn in these jobs but they provide work experience and opportunities to try out a variety of jobs, enabling future career choice. Three factors were found to influence getting a job:
I Qualifications. Young people with a degree are 2.6 times more likely to move out of unemployment compared with those without qualifications. Furthermore, young people who have already found employment (usually in lower-skilled job roles) are increasingly leaving work to gain extra qualifications that will enhance their job prospects.
I Job skill. Gaining job skills was found to improve job tenure (between 2012 and 2013 employees were 1.4 times more likely to leave a lower-skilled job than a higher-skilled job) reducing the risk of unemployment. These latter factors suggest leaving education earlier and gaining work experience is likely to improve work prospects. Indeed, in 2013, 22 per cent of 21-year-olds with a degree (or equivalent) were unemployed compared to 18 per cent of GCSE holders. However, by the age of 24 this benefit reversed with only 8 per cent of graduates (compared with 12 per cent of GCSE holders) being unemployed.
I Duration of unemployment. Those who have been unemployed for less than three months are 3.3 times more likely to move back to employment than those unemployed for over two years. Thus, young people taking on lower-skilled jobs maintain their presence in the labour market preparing themselves for future skilled roles.
These data highlight that both education and job skills are crucial steps towards a young person gaining and maintaining employment.
The see-saw model
Research is contributing to an understanding of why young people have difficulties finding work. The focus has been on motivation (e.g. Vansteenkiste et al., 2005); lack of readiness for the work environment (e.g. Pring et al., 2012); and long, difficult transitions from education to the workplace (Symonds et al., 2011). However, much of this work focuses on young people themselves and not employers, and the trend to employ young people is decreasing.
While recession and globalisation are often quoted as reasons for employment changes, they may not fully explain the trend not to appoint to entry-level positions. Economic recession may have made the employment of young people less likely but it did not cause this change: UK organisations have been reducing the number of young people employed over the last 20 years (SKOPE, 2012). The fact that so few UK organisations employ young people seems to go unnoticed.
Taken together this evidence suggests a simple model of supply and demand would focus attention on the current issues of youth employment, giving a more holistic view of the problems and suggesting meaningful research and intervention agendas. Imagine a plank weighed down on one side by nearly one million young people looking for work, completely out of balance with the other end of the plank representing jobs provided by organisations: here we have the see-saw model of supply and demand in youth employment (Carter, 2013a). It is clear that the lack of demand from organisations is not sufficient to balance the high supply of young people who are seeking employment. Therefore, it is at the demand end of the model that research and innovation is needed in order to supply more jobs for young people.
Research and actions
With our focus set on increasing demand it is important to examine why employers are reluctant to provide entry-level jobs. Few studies have taken place to examine this question. However, there is emerging evidence that UK employers may be rejecting younger job candidates too swiftly (Palermo & Bourne, 2014). In a study of over 102,000 recent job candidates completing a 15-trait personality assessment, role profiles of employers’ requirements were compared with candidates’ profiles expressed as different age ranges (e.g. under 20, 21–25, and up to 51–60). Comparisons showed no overall adverse impact across the traits when role profiles were matched by trained professionals to inform the interview processes. However, small but significant differences were found between the age groups showing areas where young people needed to develop and also where they outshone the other age groups. For example, under-21-year-olds have a lower preference for influencing and social confidence, but these preferences change rapidly over the next five years. Therefore selection processes looking only at current preferences would be rejecting these candidates, ignoring their potential to develop these preferences (particularly if facilitated by development programmes). Further, comparisons showed those under 21 years had high levels of energy and stamina, were happy making rapid decisions and had strong achievement orientation (Ashridge reported similar findings when they explored the behaviours and needs of 2000 graduates and their managers: see Honoré & Paine Schofield, 2009). Therefore, in work contexts where these preferences were positively associated with job performance (e.g. in the service industry) younger people were outperforming those older than themselves.
Two further studies contribute to our understanding of young people as active learners encountering barriers when seeking work. A qualitative study, conducted by second-year undergraduate students used interviews and focus groups to appreciate the voice of young unemployed people in an urban environment and compared their activities and aspirations with a student group (Carter, 2013a). Contrary to popular opinion the unemployed young people were more active than the student group; having a clearer vision of the work that they wanted to do (e.g. ‘I have set my mind on starting a computer business in particular’).
Further, a Delphi study exploring the job-seeking behaviours and experiences of British, European and Asian master’s students following graduation (Carter, 2013b) revealed several barriers to gaining work in the various country contexts. For example, when asked about their job-seeking process and the attitudes of hiring managers, one participant explained:
‘I passed 1st two rounds of interviews; but failed the 3rd round with the General Manager; their attitude was quite harsh during the process and [they] presented an annoyed feeling towards the end of the interview process. He started to talk about his career path…’.
These studies suggest employers need careful guidance and training about rejecting young people who may already have excellent job-specific skills, while others – such as the ability to influence and gain opportunities – require experience to develop. Further, it is important that trained professionals involved in selection and assessment (many of whom are practitioner psychologists) are made aware of these issues to inform their practice.
However, changing selection and assessment processes – which are often conducted with large numbers of applicants using online screening – may be difficult. If criteria are set such that applicants need to be currently reporting preferences for influencing and social confidence, those under 21 years will be screened out at an early stage of the assessment process and will be unable to demonstrate their rapid decision making or their strong achievement orientation. This highlights the difficulties that practitioner psychologists encounter when they are unable to control areas of bias occurring early in assessment processes (e.g. prior to short-listing) or in the final stage of candidate selection (traditionally an interview with the hiring manager), when current competencies alone are often considered (favouring older, more experienced candidates) rather than appreciating competencies that can be developed in the workplace by younger candidates.
The qualitative studies also highlight differences in hiring managers’ needs and perceptions compared with those of the young job seekers. Similar mismatches were identified in the Ashridge study exploring a multi-generational view of young people born from 1982 to 2002 (the so-called Generation Y: Honoré & Paine Schofield, 2009). Young workers were confident, questioning and ambitious, but demanded much support and development in the workplace. This could make managers reluctant to employ young people. In addition, managers interviewing young people require specialist training and advice on how to deliver developmental feedback to improve the attitudes and skills of young job seekers.
Implementation in the UK
Several organisations have taken steps to specifically develop entry-level jobs for young people and offer apprenticeships, such as London Local Authorities (LLA) (Ashworth, 2014; Matta, 2013). Apprenticeships are not a new concept but they have been criticised for being male-dominated and applicable to certain skills (e.g. building trades and engineering) (Ashworth, 2014). In the 1990s, following government support, apprenticeships were redeveloped to focus on occupational competence in a wide variety of industry and public sector organisations. Specific frameworks, such as those in finance, offer qualifications developing apprentices to chartership qualifications. These developments have resulted in general improvements in the number and quality of apprenticeships available and offer a viable alternative to university education in certain work roles.
Further government encouragement in the form of the 2009 Backing Young Britain campaign (see tinyurl.com/lgt4cs4) saw LLA pledge to take on 2000 apprentices during the period 2009 to 2012. One LLA with a high percentage of young people who were not in employment or education (NEETs) examined their organisational skills profile to find that they had skills shortages and an ageing workforce. They concluded it would be advantageous for them to develop an apprenticeship scheme to get local young people into work and to grow their own talent. The apprenticeship scheme was launched in May 2010 and was open to local residents aged 16–24 years, offering a 12-month employment contact using generic and health and social care frameworks. To date, the scheme has successfully employed 78 apprentices (with 35 per cent being retained within the LLA in permanent job roles) and is an ongoing part of their recruitment programme. Central to the success of this scheme are the four facets of support provided (close management of the training provider; mentorship and support for apprentices; mentorship and support for managers; and an apprentice forum). Of particular interest is the in-depth support offered to managers to firstly develop the apprentice opportunity and then to support managers throughout the apprenticeships.
A multi-level evaluation of the scheme (using Birdi’s 2006 TOTADO Framework: Ashworth, 2014) showed that individual apprentices were enjoying the scheme and were willing to learn. The LLA’s departments gained needed skills developed by the apprentices, the workforce age profile is becoming more diverse, and salary costs were reduced. Further, societal analysis shows the apprenticeship scheme is providing valuable work for young people, reducing the support required for NEETs; and is developing the LLA as a ‘brand’ (people in the local community now appreciate the work done by the LLA and see them as a viable employer). However, the evaluation did find that apprentices could be unreliable and time was needed to counsel them about their timekeeping and behaviour at work. Support to the scheme worked with apprentices to develop a code of conduct booklet.
Managers were concerned that the LLA could not provide longer-term job roles for apprentices. To redress this issue a redeployment register was used for apprentices coming to the end of their contact, to highlight further job roles that may be available in the LLA. By 2012 the retention rate of apprentices had risen to 55 per cent. Interviews with apprentices not retained by the LLA found the 12-month work experience offered skills and experience that were then valued by other employers (Ashworth, 2014).
From this case study we can see there are a range benefits associated with employing young people. However, these come at a cost of providing support for both the apprentices and the employing managers. Much more knowledge of the benefits of this type of scheme is needed to increase employing managers’ willingness to give jobs to young people and to accommodate the training and development needs of current staff as well the young people.
Other case studies are out there, such as the forward-thinking community college that has forged relationships with external business partners to develop a coaching programme for students (Levi & Gosden, 2014). This is showing benefits not only for students but also for local businesses: widening skills of working with young people, developing viable succession planning opportunities and meeting skills shortages.
In summary, there are many benefits to employers in working with young people and these need to be emphasised in relation to the negative press that young job seekers often receive. In a balanced review of the issues, the intergenerational study (Honoré & Paine Schofield, 2009) offered recommendations for both young people (e.g. exploit your energy and enthusiasm; watch and listen) and those working with and managing young people (e.g. be open to new ideas and useful challenge; but recognise areas where you may need to provide ‘catch up’ to certain standards).
In examining these issues it has become clear that the unwillingness to provide young people with work may lie in inflexible attitudes of hiring managers supported by ill-advised selection processes. Practitioner psychologists are well placed to influence these attitudes and provide appropriate training and development that will enable people from several generations to work more effectively together. I would urge psychologists and others to:
I encourage the generation of work opportunities for young people; allaying fears, providing education and changing attitudes were necessary;
I encourage employers to consider work that young people can excel in, rather than focusing on what they need to develop;
I offer support and advice to managers who are considering employing young people and maintain this support during the employment cycle;
I be aware that short-term work experiences may be enough to develop young people sufficiently to enter the job market;
I raise awareness that age differences can influence preferences that may adversely impact on young people’s performance in selection situations;
I consider developing competencies as well as existing competencies in job selection; and
I offer and maintain support to young people taking on new roles and to find ways of facilitating differences between young people and their managers.
Within the British Psychological Society the Division of Occupational Psychology facilitates a Youth Employment Working Group. The group’s objectives are to raise awareness of the issues of employing young people so that they are better understood by employers and other stakeholders, including psychologists and HR professionals, and to stimulate intervention and research in this area. It is time to address bias towards the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of young people and develop work environments that support and develop their skills.
Angela Carter is a Lecturer at Sheffield University Management School and Principal of Just Development
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