Work experience key to post-pandemic recovery

As the UK seeks to address the impact of the last 18 months both on the economy and on education, it remains unclear what support will be available to young people aged 11-19 to help them make up for lost time and ensure their employment prospects are not seriously affected.

In light of the current uncertainty, leading youth social mobility charity Speakers for Schools commissioned three YouGov surveys to determine the attitudes of young people towards education and employment post-COVID, and how this relates to the views of employers and politicians. Respondents were made up of over 2,000 young people aged 11-19 from across the UK, 100 business leaders and 100 MPs.  

How are young people feeling about their future? 

Though young people themselves may not yet fully understand the long-term effects of the pandemic on their situation, successive lockdowns, disruption to education and restrictions on travel and in-person activities have inevitably reduced the number of opportunities for personal and social development and created deeper divides between the most and least disadvantaged in society.

Not surprisingly given the many challenges of the last 18 months, young people aged 16-19 see mental health support as key to making up for lost time, but the other consistent top priority for this age group is access to workplace experience. 

In fact, when asked what would improve their confidence in relation to their future career, getting work experience in a relevant field was voted as helpful by 53-63% of 16-19-year-olds – attracting more votes than any other activity.

Given this, it is therefore particularly significant that 47-55% of young people aged 16-19 stated that not having access to work experience opportunities is the biggest barrier to success for their future career. A finding that further reinforces the importance of virtual work experience to make work experience accessible for more young people across the UK as we emerge from the pandemic.

How does this relate to what employers and politicians have to say?

91% of employers and 95% of politicians recognise that young people have been moderately to significantly impacted by the pandemic, with a higher percentage of politicians than employers viewing the impact as being significant.

Of the employers surveyed, 67% are confident in their understanding of the hopes, needs and aspirations of under 18s, but this is keenly at odds with the views expressed by the young people surveyed, which indicated that only 23% agree that employers understand their hopes, needs and aspirations well.

This disconnect is perhaps best explained by the fact that 66% of employers gain their general insights into under 18s from their own personal relationships with friends and family, which means that their insights are less likely to be in tune with the experiences of young people in wider society.

It is a similar story when it comes to politicians. But whereas a staggering 87% of politicians are confident they understood young people’s needs, hopes and aspirations, a mere 11% of young people agree that politicians understand their hopes, needs and aspirations well.

This disconnect is most likely because 84-86% of politicians gather their insights into young people from family, friends, schools or contact with constituents, which strongly suggests they need to expand their frame of reference and seek insights from outside of their traditional networks.

As recovery plans are put in place, it is important that employers and politicians understand not only that these disconnects exist, but also that they need to do to make sure that the views of young people are properly represented. 

In other words, if employers and politicians are to understand young people better and avoid the echo chamber effect, they need to actively use more reliable methods for information gathering across a broader cross-section of young people.

How are young people going to make up for lost time?

It isn’t just young people who believe work experience is a vital tool for helping them to make up for lost time, employers and politicians do too. Employers rated work experience as the most helpful catch-up activity for young people whilst politicians rated it as the most helpful non-academic activity to help young people recover from the effects of the pandemic.

While traditional work experience starts to be reintroduced as lockdown eases, there are still many factors to consider. The ‘pingdemic’ is leading to businesses having to send staff home or close altogether, which could lead to in-person work experience placements being postponed or cancelled. And similarly, young people contacted through track and trace would be unable to attend if required to self-isolate. Aside from this, there is still the issue of availability and accessibility of in-person placements as geography and cost can present very real barriers to participation for some young people and employers tend to be limited to lower intake numbers for physical placements.

Not so with online work experience. Virtual work experience removes the barriers of geography, cost for young people, and allows both employers and the young people to meet safely in a secure online setting either from the workplace or from home. And because it’s virtual it offers much more flexibility, enabling employers to upscale their outreach to increase the number of placements they offer and expand the catchment area to include young people from across the UK.

Young People Need Support

9/10 politicians agree that government support is needed to help young people recover from the impact of the pandemic. Right now, the government needs to listen to what young people have to say and start to work more closely with employers and non-profit organisations like Speakers for Schools to help make work experience more accessible, particularly for those with the highest need. 

Speakers for Schools already have an extensive network of over 700 employers and work with almost 4,000 state secondary schools and colleges. In the last 18 months, the charity has offered over 56,000 online placements through its Virtual Work Experience programme and it intends to do even more for the coming academic year. 

In July 2021, together with strategic partners UK Youth and Young Enterprise, Speakers for Schools launched Youth Card, a free mobile app for 11-25-year-olds, which allows young people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to access free work experience, skill-building, mentoring, volunteering, career guidance, local and national youth groups, exclusive discounts and much more. Youth Card has the potential to improve outcomes for millions of young people.

To find out more about working with Speakers for School to deliver virtual work experience opportunities through the Youth Card platform, contact: info@youthcard.org