Working with young people can be both hugely inspiring and incredibly frustrating. Hearing 18-24 years olds talk last week to a room full of employers, funders and policy makers about their experience of making the journey from long-term unemployment into work was one such occasion.
I was inspired because of the positivity, energy and resourcefulness that so many young people bring to their own situations, even as they face huge barriers. However, I was frustrated that the same issues kept emerging from their stories: about barriers that are possible to address.
All these young people had experience of employment programmes that treat them as the "problem", assuming that when more than ten years of formal education have not succeeded - somehow an 8 week training programme and a CV workshop might suddenly change their life chances.
- Danika, a young mother, told how she'd secured a job with a well-known employer, but couldn't take up the opportunity due to challenges around childcare. I wondered whether the employer might have made adjustments, had Danika had the confidence or support to challenge them, and ask the right questions.
- Mohammed told me that it wasn't a lack of skills working against him - he'd achieved GCSEs and was technical capable, yet he'd never known what opportunities were available to him, or where to look for them - so he never did.
Danika and Mohammed were talking at the launch of "Reach Out, Enable, Connect", a new report highlighting the learning from the first two years of Talent Match London, a partnership programme led by London Youth that seeks to find, engage and support young people facing the biggest barriers to work, and give them the space and security to make positive choices, develop and realise their ambitions.
When the young people had finished speaking, the Chief Executive of ERSA, the trade association that represents work programme providers, responded unequivocally: "This approach should be mainstreamed."
Having heard these reflections, I took a look at the policy proposals of this year's London Mayoral candidates to see what they had to offer young people like Danika and Mohammed.
Both of the frontrunners focus on skills. They argue that there are plenty of opportunities in London, if only young people had the right technical training to pursue them. Whilst this may be true for some, we've learned over the first two years of Talent Match London that, for many young people, it's not a lack of skills preventing them from finding work. About half of young people we support who've been out of work for a year have suitable qualifications.
So, if not a lack of skills, what is stopping them?
You may be surprised by the challenges that some young people have to cope with which make travelling to work, learning on the job and showing the resilience to succeed, extremely difficult. Think about the young father who fears that social services will take away his child after he is sanctioned by the job centre, the young woman who cares for 6 siblings and a sick mother in a flat in Tottenham, the young woman who went all the way through school without her disability being diagnosed and now suffers from chronic and crippling lack of self-esteem.
Employment programmes need to focus on building confidence, resilience, and work-related networks - then all young people can thrive in the workplace.
Since the beginning of 2014, Talent Match London has worked with over 900 young people, all of whom were long term unemployed, and 41% of whom were not claiming benefits or accessing any other support. 250 of them are now in jobs or have started their own businesses, and the rest are well on their way to the same. We've learned that:
You need to reach out to young people...
We estimate around 35,000 young Londoners are out of work but not claiming unemployment benefits, and therefore unlikely to be accessing any support at all. If they are already 'hidden' like this you really need to work hard and creatively to find and engage them. This means getting out of the Jobcentre Plus, and getting into youth centres, chicken shops, nail bars, bus stops, onto estates and into their homes. The best way we've found of doing this is by supporting other young people to go out and find others like them who might need support but don't know where to find it.
....and put them in control.
We know that pretty much every young person does want to succeed, and do the best they can for themselves. But for those who aren't succeeding, it is usually because an they face an obstacle that is too hard for them to deal with on their own. If you establish a programme which starts by asking 'what do you want to do, and what is stopping you from doing it?' and are then prepared to spend as much time as needed answering those questions positively, you might succeed where others have failed. And you'll be surprised, as we are, by how quickly young people who've been written off time and time again can get themselves into a position where they will flourish and develop.
Mohammed spoke of the impact of working closely with a youth worker as part of his development. "It was the first time anyone had actually asked what it was like to be me. Once she did that, I felt I could start to explore what I wanted to do in the future. Now I am doing well, and proud that I can help other people get on the same track as I did."
You need to work with employers from the start.
If you want young people to get jobs, getting employers on board is essential. A group of young people from Talent Match London spent last week on a variety of work experience placements created by Transport for London and their supply chain. Not only did it open their eyes to the huge range of jobs, careers and skills which existed, it also helped the employers think about how they communicate with and recruit young people.
As part of our drive to create a Vision for Young Londoners which London Youth, London Funders, Partnership for Young London and around 50 other youth organisations have endorsed, we're asking whoever becomes Mayor of London in May to take on board these lessons, and specifically to "reward employers who recruit young Londoners, and encourage companies to work with their local community to open up meaningful work experience opportunities for all."
We all share the same ambition: for young Londoners to take advantage of the opportunities that this great city has to offer. We want the next Mayor, and everyone else who has a role in shaping policy for helping young people find work, to be brave, imaginative and resourceful in meeting this challenge. Just like the young people who've succeeded through Talent Match London.
"Reach Out, Enable Connect" is the full report of Talent Match first two years of learning. Read it here.