If we want to get our NEETs back into work, says Dr Fiona Aldridge, we need to speak more plainly

Last week, in partnership with the Department for Education, L&W hosted a conference entitled Traineeships: Why they work to provide practical insight into effective and innovative ways in which traineeships can be delivered to secure positive outcomes for young people, employers and local areas.

Ensuring young people get a firm first step on the career ladder must be a priority for us all; there is clear evidence that being unemployed while young can have a permanent scarring effect on long-term pay and job prospects.

It was in the context of particularly high levels of youth unemployment that traineeships were launched in 2013, to provide a focused pathway for young people to gain the skills and experience needed to get an apprenticeship or a job. Comprising work experience, work preparation training and support with English and maths, the programme has engaged over 50,000 young people in its first three years.

Although youth unemployment is now falling, far too many young people are still locked out of opportunities to enter and progress in the labour market. At 12.5 per cent, the youth unemployment rate is almost three times higher than the overall unemployment rate of 4.6 per cent. Our research shows growing numbers of young people spend more than a year not in education, employment or training (NEET) – storing up longer-term trouble for the 800,000 young people in this position. Now is not the time to take our foot off the pedal.

Perhaps branding is not always as important as we think it is

The overriding theme of the day was that the strength of the traineeship programme is in its flexibility – creating opportunities for providers, employers and others to develop new approaches that best meet the needs of their particular context and learners. But while flexibility is certainly a strength, it can also create challenges, not least in how best to describe and promote the programme.

Our DfE speaker assured the audience that they have heard the message that low awareness of the ‘traineeship’ brand is hindering providers’ success – and plan to take action. This will be welcome news for many.

However, others were keen to point out that the “traineeship” label rarely plays a prominent role in their engagement of young people or employers.

Instead, they find it much more effective to focus on what young people and employers are looking to achieve, and create an offer that supports this from the flexibilities offered by the programme. As one provider said: “We’ve stopped marketing traineeships; we’ve started marketing careers advice”.

So perhaps branding is not always quite as important as we think it is – and certainly in relation to traineeships, developing clear and concise messages for employers, young people and their parents about what the programme includes is an issue. While we want to build confidence in the quality and effectiveness of provision on offer, we should also remember that sometimes the best way of engaging people in learning is to take a step outside of the language that is familiar to us within the sector, and focus instead on connecting with the aspirations and ambitions of those we are seeking to engage. (If you’re interested in great examples of what works, take a look at the case study videos on our website.)

Most young people want to work – but many of these will not be motivated by a traineeship – they rarely approach a provider or a Jobcentre Plus work coach asking about the programme. But they do want to earn money, support themselves and build their future. It is crucial therefore that we give our young people a clear line of sight to work and deliver focused support through creative and engaging programmes. Providers such as Millwall Community Trust, NACRO, Harlow College and Qube, all of whom contributed to our conference last week, are leading the way in doing just this.

Fiona Aldridge is assistant director of the learning and work institute