How school-leavers are preparing to navigate 2021’s depleted job market

Un/employmenthood: Kicking off THE FACE's week-long series on youth unemployment, Rhys Thomas meets the students figuring out what to do with their lives post-GCSEs.

You know the feeling. The last bell has rung, the sweat-stained shirt you’ve struggled with all term has been signed by your mates, you’ve said cheers to the teachers you like and you’re off. It’s the holidays. There’s nothing to do and (results day aside) you don’t have a care in the world. But for the class of 2021, it’s going to be a little different.

Since 2020, the UK has seen levels of youth unemployment soar. According to the House of Commons Library, 13.5 per cent of 16 – 24 year-olds were unemployed as of May 2021. This is down from the 14.6 per cent recorded at the end of those awful winter lockdowns, but up from the 13.1 per cent figure from May last year.

Just before the pandemic, way back in December 2019, Youth Employment UK reported that 11.2 per cent of 16 – 24 year olds were unemployed. So, at best, there’s been a 2 per cent increase in unemployment over the pandemic. But for a more stark comparison, we can look to Germany: in 2019, the country’s youth unemployment rate was about 5.75 per cent. That’s just under half as bad.

AYAAN, 17

Gertrude is an 18 year old from London. She’s going down one of the more traditional school-leaver routes, university, to study law. It’s been a career option for me for quite a long time. I’m very preoccupied with thinking about my future,” she says. The skills needed to do law were things that I was already good at and comfortable with, and my subjects matched too. Also, I genuinely want to have an impact on the world.” It’s a savvy and headstrong plan, but it also strikes a balance between dream-chasing and risk aversion. Gertrude is one of many leavers facing this balancing act.

Both Saida (17, West London) and Saynab (17, South Wales) have landed on a rough idea of what they want to do. Their plan is to make sure their A‑Level subjects align with a job sector or two of choice, focus on getting the grades and boost their CVs by completing online courses when they get a minute. Saida’s even changed her approach to life over the pandemic. Before the first lockdown, Saida was a planner. Now, I realise that things probably won’t go to plan, so I’m just focusing on what I can do right now, instead of in the future.” Saynab, too, is setting herself up for whatever comes: I’m hoping to just do a degree and find a job to be honest with you.”

For those chasing a specific path without compromise, the process has involved an acceptance of how difficult it might be to find a job at the end of the tunnel. Or, at least, this is how Ayaan, (17, Cardiff) feels. She’s just finished her GCSEs and has decided to move outside of the university route, with plans to become an air hostess. It’s a job that would allow her to travel and meet people, but wouldn’t revolve around the pen-and-paper study that she finds difficult.

Despite worries about the security of air travel jobs should Covid-19 cause further lockdowns and other personal obstacles, Ayaan is keen to have a real go at getting the job that she wants. Why would you want to do something that doesn’t make you happy?” she says. Yeah, I can’t predict things will work out and I don’t know if I’m going to be successful or not in my job, but I’m still just gonna go for it. Whatever happens, happens.” To bolster her chances, she’s studying eight different languages to try and stand out among other applicants.

GERTRUDE, 18

A concern that was felt by everyone interviewed for this article was work experience. From school leavers to teachers, work experience, or a lack thereof, was cited as one of Covid-19’s cruellest blows to the prospects of school-leavers. All of the students we spoke to had seen placements cancelled. While they’ve been honing in on skills they can develop themselves, whether it’s boosting grades, learning languages or reading around an area of interest, something this cohort hasn’t had is office experience – the pressure of a working environment and, crucially, the chance to make connections.

One thing that the educational system doesn’t prepare you for is the fact that your network is your network,” Gertrude says. Law is very competitive. You need connections, you need to know people. But it’s really hard when you’re not privileged or you’re not in that circle. That’s what worries me.”

Of course, for any teenager, figuring out what they might want to do for the rest of their life is absolutely terrifying. Does anyone know what their future will look like when they’re finishing up their Of Mice and Men essay? Of course not. But these days, it seems that the prime currency for buying security is time. Having an idea of your path earlier in life is becoming more and more of a necessity.

These pupils all felt a lot of pressure in this respect. However, they also felt their schools could have done a little more to help. While placement cancellations were unforeseeable, these students felt assistance with finding work experience was neglected. Saida says her school didn’t do much with helping us find work experience, they just gave us a form. That’s it, we did the rest ourselves.”

Meanwhile, Saynab says that her school mainly focused on A‑Level choices, helping with personal statements and university applications. But when it came to figuring out what she actually wanted to do, it was down to me”, she adds.

Saynab’s school is listed as excellent” by Estyn, the Welsh version of Ofsted. This raises alarm bells. If a top school is leaving diligent students less-than-satisfied, other schools are going to be too. Yet, it’s fair to assume that schools are (at least in part) assessed on how they teach the curriculum, not on how they guide students towards life beyond the classroom walls. It makes sense that they’d focus on the studying aspects.

LAURA-JANE RAWLINGS, CEO OF YOUTH EMPLOYMENT UK

I think there’s a need for education reform,” says Laura-Jane Rawlings, CEO of Youth Employment UK. Rawlings also mentions how employers and the government need to do more, particularly around the welfare system, as often parents simply cannot afford to help their children with costs such as university. The overarching issue is a lack of resources to help prepare pupils for the labour market and, as a result, the organisation has a variety of initiatives and resources to help prepare and improve the prospects of 16 – 24-year-olds for the world of work.

For teachers, though, there’s a fine line to tread. They can help guide choices, but they can’t tell a pupil which career to take. The government’s National Careers Service is also there to show possibilities, not give students an answer (the NCS did not respond to a request for comment on this article). However, Tom, a high-school teacher in a Hampshire town says roughly 80 to 85 per cent” of his tutor group had a careers interview. These interviews essentially discuss the strengths a pupil has, along with their interests and subjects, in order to suggest a few possible career avenues.

Tom’s school is listed as requiring improvement” by Ofsted. He echoes Rawlings’s concerns about the government and welfare state, noting that a fair few of his pupils are disenfranchised. While many kids took advantage of resources like career appointments, others haven’t. Some do not care. Sadly, I guess their backgrounds aren’t able to be supportive enough.” In these often-forgotten areas, where children go to the same school as their parents did and then live in the same house as them, there is a sense of isolation. There’s no need to leave the area or try something different. As a result, social mobility is rare.

There were big challenges before Covid. Covid has merely widened the systemic issues,” Rawlings says. There’s been a constant battle to get employers to recruit diversely, whether that means looking beyond the perfect CVs with five A‑Levels plus work experience, recruiting from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, or looking at towns previously untouched by their payroll. Semi-optimistically, though, Rawlings notes that Covid has allowed us all to work remotely. So actually, you could work for Google if you lived in, for example, Great Yarmouth, which is a coastal town that’s kind of getting left behind.”

The youth inactivity rate is now close to the highest rate since comparable records began” back in 1992. It’s currently at 41.2 per cent. But only 81 per cent of the young people who are economically inactive are in full-time education”. This suggests that as much as 19 per cent of young people are slipping through gaps in the system. Rawlings agrees that this is a big concern for Youth Unemployment UK.

In classrooms, Tom says he’s seen a bit of a distinction between who stays in school and who leaves with a path in mind. It generally leans toward girls moving into sixth form and boys leaving for more labour-based jobs – plumbers, carpenters and that.” Tom’s encouraged by the fact that these labour-based jobs are not going to die out any time soon and, once learned, these skills can’t be taken away from them.

Meanwhile, in North-East Lincolnshire, Em, who teaches up to GCSE level, has been telling pupils that if they don’t know what they’re doing, stay on in education, because at least then you have got that back-up – as opposed to just going straight into the world of work and not really knowing what you want to do.”

Em mentions that while she’s had brief conversations with students, they seem to be more reliant on the career seminars and workshops the school has arranged with colleges, employers and careers counsellors than speaking to teachers. She also notes that students are finding jobs in hospitality and retail over the summer”. Of all the sectors, it seems these areas have the most vacancies, as foreign workers (who overwhelmingly work in these industries) have left the UK as a result of the pandemic and Brexit. As youth employment is so low, students needing a job for the summer will have to take these roles – whether they’d like to or not.

When asked what their summer holidays will look like, alongside spending time with friends and doing some of the normal things school-leavers do, it seems it won’t all be fun and games. The students’ answers included: Trying to fix my CV and find online work experience”, Working in a primary school” and Waiting to hear back for a retail or hospitality job”.

These students are diligent young people, examples of those that are heading toward something. Though they might have grappled with the prospect of unemployment, they are not directionless. Whether it’s through their own initiative, because they have a good support group or through pure necessity, they are shaping their futures. Yet their worries are – or should be – beyond their years. Sure, some people leaving school won’t give two shits about the future. But they’re young, why should they care? The summer holidays are just beginning. And so are the rest of their lives.

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