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The catch-22 holding back Britain’s youth

Our young people need businesses to take a fresh look at them – and at work experience, writes Crossrail's Valerie Todd.

The Crossrail shaft at Farringdon. Crossrail has trained a generation of tunnelling experts. Photograph: Getty Images

The UK economy has struggled through recessions and weak recoveries for some time now, with uncertain hints of growth every few months. No one feels the impact of this more than young people, who have fewer opportunities than ever before to find jobs and get into work. There is an urgent need to create more job opportunities for young people, even if our finance teams shake their heads disapprovingly. Not doing so fails ultimately fails everyone.

Word of mouth communication is now the number one recruitment channel for employers. But this doesn’t work well for young people, who haven’t yet had time to build the right contacts, networks and social capital. Recruitment needs to become less about who you know, and more about what you know and what you can do. Otherwise, young people miss out – and so do employers.

Another structural barrier is experience. Contrary to popular belief, most employers who take on young people straight from education find them well prepared for work. Yet most businesses attach great value to experience when recruiting, to the detriment of other qualities such as attitude, common sense and willingness to learn. Lack of experience is the top reason why employers reject young hopefuls’ job applications. And there’s only one cure for it. A job.

Yet other structural changes have meant that the sorts of job where young people used to get their starts have been on the wane.  My first job doesn’t exist anymore. Does yours? With only one in four employers offering work experience and the intense competition for Saturday jobs, young people today are stuck in a catch-22 situation. 

Perhaps what we need is a refreshed understanding of work experience. Work experience needn’t just be a two-week placement in the summer holidays,  Employers can assist young people in a wide variety of ways,  for example through it can also include careers talks, site visits, help with interview technique,  and mentoring. The New Statesman is a great example of creative thinking about work experience.  Recognising that many graduates aren’t able to relocate for an internship, they are trialling "virtual work experience" placements. Editors mentor graduates remotely, working with them to develop their writing and publish articles on the New Statesman website. This kind of flexibility could give employers, especially smaller businesses who are starved of time and resource, more choice around how to build work experience and when and where to host it. It might also mean fewer 16 year-olds whose "work experience" consists of introducing hot water to tea bags. 

The shape of the labour market is also loaded against young people trying to get a job. Although the recession has led to subdued recruitment activity generally, employment in managerial and professional roles has grown by over 900,000 – and this growth is forecast to continue. Unfortunately, employers who specialise in these jobs don’t tend to recruit young people. When they do, they focus on graduates. We need to create more non-graduate routes into this kind of high skill work. Apprenticeships are a huge part of the solution here. Last week was National Apprenticeship Week; hopefully it served to emphasise the benefits apprentices can bring to business. 

At Crossrail, our passion for investing in young people is genuine and runs throughout whole business. Our pre-apprenticeship training, apprenticeship programmes and work placement schemes are creating a new generation of talent not only for Crossrail but for the wider UK construction industry. At TUCA (the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy) in Ilford, we have created a centre of excellence in tunnelling skills that will ensure that UK employees are in demand for major infrastructure programmes all over the world. What I have seen of our young apprentices leaves me with no doubt as to how vital they are to the business. They are enthusiastic, loyal and quick to learn. And, being from a technically minded generation, they are better than most at working with the computers and controls needed in tunnelling and construction.

There are so many challenges for young people trying to get into work today. I believe it’s time for the government, employers, schools and colleges to come together and tackle the youth employment challenge head on. If not, the economy risks losing out on the talent and skills of nearly a million young people. If that’s not bad enough, the consequences for young people themselves will be far more serious and long lasting.