Combined authorities and colleges working closely together can help reduce the risk of youth unemployment, write Julie Nugent and Gina Patel
Since the pandemic emerged in the UK last year, the economy has taken an unprecedented hit. National unemployment now stands at five per cent, while one-fifth of people are not economically active or seeking work.
For many people, the government’s furlough scheme has been a crucial life raft during this challenging time. However, what the future holds once this comes to an end is much less certain.
It is likely to mean even higher unemployment rates across many of our local areas. Armed with this knowledge, we have a duty of care to support the communities we serve.
It is one of the reasons we’ve been trying to innovate and provide robust solutions for young people, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
In the West Midlands last month there were 169,835 claimants, either on unemployment benefits or those on universal credit or jobseeker’s allowance – a staggering increase of 79 per cent from the same time last year.
Additionally, almost 7,000 16-to-17-year-olds were not in education, employment or training (NEET) in the West Midlands in 2020 – lower than the national average, but still a lot.
Setting up a ‘Young Combined Authority’
Experience tells us that the most effective solutions to addressing unemployment are those that reflect regional and local contexts, co-designed with employers and local partners.
A regional Jobs and Skills Board has allowed us to work with colleges, providers, local authorities and the Department for Work and Pensions to develop the best responses possible.
Importantly, these responses have been designed with young people, for young people. We know that our careers advice and FE engagement programmes will have much greater reach and uptake if we integrate the views and insights of those they are intended to support.
So last September at the West Midlands we set up a Young Combined Authority (YCA), which is a forum of approximately 30 young people aged between 16 and 25 who are representative of different backgrounds and experiences and can feed into wider policies.
It’s still in its infancy, but we are developing a wider community of 100 young people to drive wider outreach across the region.
It has helped to launch a new online platform, which is a one-stop-shop for young people to find training, employment and volunteering opportunities in their local area.
Youth hubs in colleges
Support for young people has been further bolstered following the Chancellor’s announcement of the creation of Youth Hubs, as part of the “Plan for Jobs”, in July last year.
Physical “youth hubs” have been established across the region to engage more young people and give them access to localised advice and support, including support from a DWP work coach. These youth hubs provide co-located support for young people in youth-friendly spaces such as Sandwell College.
During Covid-19, many of these have moved to providing support online through webinars, as well as supporting young people via text and email.
There are other initiatives that we think can add to a national blueprint of increasing employment and decreasing economic inactivity among younger people.
Strengthening the combined authority’s connections with colleges and local authorities is important, to effectively track and reduce the number of those young people at risk of not being in employment, education or training.
This is achieved by working closely with colleges and their respective local authorities to share data on young people which helps identify those who are at risk of disengaging.
Colleges can then provide enhanced engagement and recruitment activities for specific students to ensure they start and stay on course.
The youth voice is an important piece of the puzzle for the country going forward. It should be amplified when decision-makers are thinking about jobs of the future, the Covid-19 economic recovery and employment support.
Creating the YCA forum, and linking it up with colleges, will help to make sure local employment and training initiatives can be regionally focused and more effective.