“This isn’t just about kickstarting our country’s economy,” said Chancellor Rishi Sunak when he announced Kickstart, a flagship scheme to help young people into work, last July.
“It is an opportunity to kickstart the careers of thousands of young people who could otherwise be left behind as a result of the pandemic.”
Kickstart is open to those aged 16-24 who are claiming Universal Credit. Companies that sign up to the scheme and create roles specifically for young people are given funding by the government to pay workers the national minimum wage for 25 hours a week (plus national insurance and pension contributions).
Employers are also able to top up offerings to extend pay and/or hours worked, to help young people at risk of long-term unemployment get a foothold on the career ladder.
Yet so far, the impact of the Kickstart scheme has been underwhelming. Of the 250,000 jobs for which the government set aside £2bn worth of funding, only 76,900 have to date been taken up – around 30 per cent of the original target.
Even though the programme has helped some young people into work, an exclusive New Statesman analysis of the monthly number of new starts – figures which were attained under the Freedom of Information Act – reveals that the recent fall in youth unemployment has not been driven by the scheme.
Between last October and June this year, youth unemployment had fallen by 1.49 percentage points; however, only around 0.5 per cent of economically-active young people had started a placement on Kickstart by June.
Young people have been hit hard by the financial impact of the pandemic. Research from the Trades Union Congress reveals that young people are facing the highest rates of redundancy, largest falls in employment and the largest fall in hours worked.
In his speech to the 2021 Conservative Party conference on Monday 4 October, Sunak announced that the scheme will be extended by four months, and will now end in March 2022.
But as the Universal Credit (UC) £20-a-week uplift is cut and following the end of furlough (which mostly benefited younger workers), there are questions over how effective the scheme has been so far.
The programme has already come under scrutiny, particularly after a slow start with only 6,000 placements beginning by March. Jonathan Reynolds MP, the shadow work and pensions secretary, called the scheme “too slow” and not “enough to meet the scale of the challenge”, quipping at the time that “[young] people will be closer to retirement than they are to a Kickstart placement”.
The scheme has not been easy to navigate for many young people and small and mid-size enterprises (SMEs).
Businesses keen to take on new starters have been met with seemingly endless delays in the application process, waiting on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to approve funding and have roles listed at job centres.
To help ease the pressure, the DWP hired intermediary “gateway agents”, to connect SMEs to candidates, but delays persist.
“I currently have over 100 roles that have not been filled. Some of the job descriptions were sent around May [to] June,” says Jess Salamanca, who runs her own SME based in London and is an official gateway for the scheme.
“The fact that they [DWP] haven't been able to fill these roles is because there’s so many inefficiencies in the system; not that there aren’t enough roles available,” says Salamanca.
Despite hiring five Kickstarters since the scheme began, Salamanca says breakdowns between the DWP and job centres have led to interviews where she has not been given the CVs of potential prospects, while the candidates themselves have only seen a job title but no description of the role on offer.
According to Salamanca, the DWP “loses or mishandles” many job listings, meaning they are not picked up by work coaches at job centres.
When listings are picked up, work coaches often do not match young people with opportunities best suited to them, forcing them either to apply for an inappropriate role or not to apply at all. This revelation may go some way to account for the fact that 61 per cent of available roles have not been filled, according to the latest DWP figures.
Such oversights in vetting and matching is what led to Nathan*, 24, to leave his Kickstart placement at a London healthcare recruitment firm early.
“It didn’t feel very professional… it didn’t feel like it was an actual company,” he told the New Statesman.
Having lost his previous job in finance at the beginning of the pandemic, Nathan says he received no support or check-ups once he started the role – “as soon as I got the job, they [the job centre] basically didn’t talk to me again,” he says. “I felt like I was just doing everything by myself from day one.”
Some young people have had better luck. After graduating from university in 2020, as the pandemic was taking its toll on employment, Isobel, 23, fell into “a whirlwind of being made redundant” after losing two jobs in quick succession.
She initially lost the part-time retail job she did while studying, and another similar role again following the collapse of Debenhams, subsequently ending up on Universal Credit.
“You have this image of when you graduate that the world is your oyster… But suddenly the world was shut,” she told the New Statesman. “It was hard at points not to feel totally deflated and I think a lot of [other young] people felt the same.”
Through Kickstart, Isobel got an initial six-month placement as an editorial assistant with financial advice service MoneyMagpie, who work fully remotely. After excelling in her role, she was offered a full-time job as a digital content assistant, where she manages the company’s social media and public relations output from her home in Brighton.
Both the job and the scheme has been a beneficial experience for her: “It’s genuinely made me so much more positive about the opportunities that are out there – and it’s made me realise there are opportunities out there," she said. “It’s given me foundations for my career.”
Exclusive New Statesman analysis show that even though the scheme has been slow, the roll-out has broadly matched geographical unemployment trends. Greater London – the UK region with the highest youth unemployment (20 per cent as of May-July), has also seen the highest proportion of economically-active young people start the scheme (3.4 per cent as of September).
Though the scheme has undoubtedly helped kickstart the careers of some young people, the programme is currently dogged by underwhelming recruitment numbers and teething problems. Set in the wider context of cuts to Universal Credit and a furlough-less winter, young people in Britain still face precarious job prospects.
The DWP stated: “Over the last month an average of 3,600 young people started Kickstart jobs each week – giving them the skills, confidence and experience to secure long-term sustainable employment.
“DWP Work Coaches across the country are connecting thousands more young people to the right opportunities taking into account their suitability and motivation for the role, helping them make the most of the scheme.”
*Name changed on request.