Let’s get more FE learners into the research sector

23 Jul 2022, 6:00

Roles previously considered ‘for uni graduates’ should be inundated with applications from college-leavers. Why aren’t they? asks Victoria Boelman

Covid has had an interesting impact on employment for FE leavers.

Within a few months of the virus hitting the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – fearing, and seeking to fend off, a post-pandemic a wave of youth unemployment -launched the Kickstart scheme.

This was designed to create new jobs for 16- to 24-year-olds on universal credit, who were considered at risk of long-term unemployment.  

Smashing the ivory tower 

Where I work we were quick to sign up, hoping to support young people into careers in social research.

If you’re drawing a blank here, don’t worry – you’re not alone.

Asked what a career in social research might look like (or whether to recommend it to someone in further education) many don’t know what to say.

All too often, it’s seen as an opaque, ivory-tower profession, preserved for those with PhDs.

It certainly does not represent many of those whose voices it seeks to elevate. 

The truth is, social research is a vast profession that covers a range of skills, from data analysis to arts-based storytelling.

Social researchers can be found everywhere – from government to major companies that are household names, charities, and academia.

Yet, despite this breadth, it’s hard to make a social research career seem tangible or accessible to a young person.

Some core skills do not rely on any specific qualification – particularly communication, creativity and teamwork. But the sad reality is the profession is not as diverse as it should be.

We saw kickstart as our chance to challenge this and set out to recruit a cohort of young people from FE, rather than from traditional HE backgrounds.

Between May 2021 and July this year, 22 young people took up this opportunity and discovered that, despite often having only the vaguest of ideas about what a social researcher might do all day, they could build the skills necessary for success.

Together, they designed and delivered research on issues as diverse as fatphobia, financial literacy and being a young person with ADHD in the workplace.

And we, as an organisation, have grown so much from their input, while also seeing many of our kickstarters grown their skills and confidence immeasurably.  

Greater ambition 

We now publish our evaluation of this work – which, sadly, has shown just how hard it is to attract young people from less traditional, non-university backgrounds into this kind of role.

Our aim was specifically to provide opportunities to school – and college-leavers.

Yet fewer than a third of those that applied to our programme had not attended HE, and we had to work hard with local job centres to raise the necessary understanding for them to put the opportunity to young people. 

There were many flaws in the way the programme was implemented by DWP, and The Young Foundation, as an organisation, has also learned much along the way.

What we most want to see in the future for such schemes is a greater ambition and belief in what young people from FE can achieve.

Ambition about the types of careers available to young people leaving FE.

Ambition about the types of organisations who can deliver valuable and meaningful opportunities.

And ambition about breaking down barriers across geography, socio-economic divides, and cultural backgrounds. 

In a (post)-pandemic world, where hybrid and remote work are increasingly possible, greater opportunity should be blossoming for FE leavers, regardless of their location or circumstance.

But these opportunities are worthless if young people don’t know about them. That’s the missing link, and greater support for advisers working in colleges and job centres is vital in bridging it.  

The social research profession desperately needs to diversify, and our experience shows that young people from further education have both the talent and the ambition to drive exciting work in this field – if only they’re given the chance. 

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