One of the biggest reasons many young people find it difficult to obtain employment is because they lack work experience. This means many young people find themselves in what is often described as a “Catch 22” situation:
“Clearly there is a need for young people to gain more experience but many are in a ‘Catch-22’ situation whereby they cannot gain experience without work and cannot get work without experience.” – UK Commission for Employment and Skills, The Youth Employment Challenge, July 2012.
We fully accept that there is more that can be done to help young people to gain jobs and to obtain work experience, and more that can be done to encourage companies to actually offer work jobs and work experience. A more recent UK Commission for Employment and Skills report from March 2013 suggests that only about a fifth of employers (27%) actually offer work experience to young people. This lack of formal work experience opportunities is a big problem and merits an examination of its own.
However, this idea of a Catch 22 situation regarding young people and work experience is, in part, a myth. It ignores the fact that young people can gain work experience without needing to actually have a job or even to have done official, formal “work experience” – they can gain that work experience through volunteering.
Let’s consider two examples to establish the point – a young person who wants to work in law and a young person who wants to work in retail.
Two of the best known and most popular ways to get into the legal profession as a young person are to either:
a) obtain a “training contract” with a solicitors’ firm, or
b) obtain “pupillage” with a barristers’ chambers.
Both of these are highly sought after and there are many more applicants than places for both training contracts and pupillages. Work experience is often a crucial deciding factor in whether or not young people are successful in getting a training contract or a pupillage. This means that young people often need to undergo work placements in solicitors’ firms, (sometimes called “vacation schemes” or “summer placements”), and/or work experience with barristers, often described as “mini-pupillage“.
The only problem is that these schemes are also highly sought after and have high numbers of applications for them. Inevitably some young people will get either not get any such placements or only get a small number of them, which may be less than they need to get a training contract or pupillage.
There is however another way to obtain relevant work experience if you are a young person interested in this sector – volunteering. There are volunteering opportunities all over the place for young people with an interest in law, ranging from the Free Representation Unit to the Disability Law Service, from the Citizens Advice Bureaux to Law Centres. There are also various opportunities available on websites like LawWorks. However, I have come across many aspiring young lawyers who have never heard of many of these opportunities or bothered to take part in them.
Very much the same point applies if you wish to work in retail (e.g. in a supermarket) but do not have any work experience and cannot get it. In particular, there are numerous charity shops across the UK run by charities such as Oxfam and the British Heart Foundation. These rely largely on volunteers to operate, and regularly recruit new volunteers – meaning there are often new opportunities available for young people to volunteer in these shops.
While these are no supermarkets, they are a great way for young people to learn how to deal with customers and colleagues, how to operate a till, how to deal with stock, how to stack shelves and how to deal with the money in the till at the end of the day – all skills which are crucial for working in a retail environment.
Implications for government policy
Why is all this important? Because it has serious implications for government policy. The government, schools, careers advisers, Jobcentre Plus etc do not do enough to encourage young people to volunteer, and in some cases positively discourage it.
In particular, Jobcentre Plus advisers often actively discourage young people from doing volunteering, even when they do not have enough work experience and when that voluntary work could make the difference between the young person getting a job or not getting a job. This is not just something we have experienced – you can see further examples of this phenomenon covered here, here, here and here.
In addition schools and colleges often don’t do enough to emphasise the importance of volunteering or provide enough volunteering opportunities or extra-curricular activities – something we explored in our evidence to the Youth Select Committee.
There is something wrong with this country when we have sky-high youth unemployment, partly due to the lack of work experience that many young people have, and at the same time we have charity shops and other organisations who rely on, but constantly struggle to find, volunteers. Encouraging volunteering among young people through schools, Jobcentre Plus and other institutions needs to become a central focus of government policy, and fast.