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Lizzie Crowley
Senior Researcher
Lizzie Crowley

The missing million

Authors: Lizzie Crowley Lizzie Crowley

10 September 2013

The UK has a youth unemployment crisis with more than a million young people currently not in education, work or training. Unemployment at a young age has long term consequences: if you suffer a period of long-term unemployment when young you are more likely to experience unemployment in the future, and are likely to earn less as a result. Current government policy to tackle youth unemployment in the UK is inadequate given the scale of the challenge; more needs to be done to tackle the long term causes and alleviate the short term consequences of high youth unemployment levels. 

Youth unemployment and transitions from school to work

The present crisis is not solely the result of the recession; long-term youth unemployment was rising in the UK since the early 2000s during a period of strong economic growth. Our research suggests that a part of the solution lies in helping young people make smoother transitions from school to work. For many young people this transition is difficult, and has become more so in recent years. This is due to long running changes in the economy and labour market and the shifting patterns of skills demand. Young people are now increasingly employed in service sector jobs rather than manufacturing roles, jobs which require ‘soft’ or ‘employability’ skills in place from day one, these include things like communication, team-working, self motivation and time-management skills. Alongside this qualifications have become an increasingly important determinant of employment, with those with no or low qualifications finding it increasingly difficult to get a first foothold in the labour market. Most young people still manage to transition successfully between school and work but a significant and growing proportion are getting ‘lost in transition’.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Yet it doesn’t need to be this way. Many other countries have managed to maintain consistently low levels of youth unemployment despite impact of the economic down turn and changes in the nature of work. For instance, between 2005 and 2011, the proportion young people who are unemployed in the Netherlands and Switzerland remained relatively stable whilst in Germany it has actually fallen. At the other end of the scale, there are also some countries – Spain and Greece, for example – where youth unemployment has been high during the last two decades and has rocketed as a result of the economic crisis.

The most obvious answer to cross country differences in levels of unemployment is that youth unemployment is simply worse in countries that have experienced longer and deeper recessions. But it is clear from the evidence that this is, at best, only a partial explanation. That is why we are calling on the UK policy makers, education providers, employers and third sector organisations to look for ways equip young people with the right skills to transition successfully between education and work.

Smoothing transitions – the role of work experience

An increasing proportion of young people leave school with no experience of paid work: in 2011 almost half of young people who are NEET (not in education, employment, or training) on leaving education had no experience of paid work. This seriously disadvantages them in a labour market in which employers increasingly expect individuals to have ‘soft’ or ‘employability’ skills (such as commination skills and the ability to work with others) from day one. Furthermore, a lack of experience is often cited by employers as the main reason for not employing a young person. This leaves many young people in a ‘catch-22’ situation where they have no work experience but cannot access employment to gain it.

Whilst we welcome the inclusion in the Youth Contract of work experience placements for every 18-24 year old the removal of the requirement for schools to provide placements for those aged 14-16 years risks undermining provision for younger age groups.

Smoothing transitions – the role of Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are a good way of improving vocational routes from school to work and are seen by the UK’s coalition government as a key mechanism to address the country’s youth unemployment problem. In other European countries, such as Germany, the apprenticeship system appears to have played a key role in sheltering young people from the worst of the global economic downturn.

Apprenticeships can be hugely beneficial to a young person’s labour market prospects, can bring significant benefits to businesses and are an important tool for developing a skilled workforce. Yet the system in the UK is inadequate by comparison with its European counterparts. In the UK apprenticeships are typically shorter, are set at a lower educational level, and feature much less off-the job training (in Germany apprentices do 12 hours per week – the statutory minimum here is only 1 day per month). Furthermore, the system remains small, and makes only a limited impact youth labour market. In 2009 just 4 per cent of employers employed an apprentice (significantly lower than in most European countries), and most of the recent expansion in apprenticeship numbers been among older workers (aged over 25) and to existing employees rather than new entrants.

More positively, the reforms suggested in the Richard’s review of apprentices, to which the coalition government has been in broad agreement with, may address many of these concerns. However, it has yet to be seen how, and at what pace, they will be implemented.

Smoothing transitions – careers guidance and careers education

Research has shown the critical importance of impartial careers guidance in smoothing in the transitions between education and work by enabling young people to make informed choices. High quality careers guidance, delivered at key transition points in tandem with a programme of careers education, has been shown to both raise aspirations and academic achievement.

Careers guidance and careers education in the UK have recently undergone a series of reforms. Connexions – the universal careers guidance service – has largely been abolished and the responsibility to obtain provision for those aged under 19 has been devolved down to individual schools. However, with no additional funding being made available some schools may struggle to secure quality provision. Alongside this the removal of the statutory duty to provide careers education risks undermining the support available to prevent young people becoming NEET in the first place.

Smoothing transitions – coordinating policy at the local level

The transition between education and work happens at different ages for young people. Some young people may leave school and struggle to find work; others may enter further education and/or training and fail to make the transition into work at this stage. This highlights the need to ensure the right services are in place at different ages.

Yet the current support landscape in the UK is complex and fragmented – with unclear pathways for young people and a confusing environment for employers who wish to engage. A major problem has been a lack of co-ordination, with service provision patchy and inconsistent plus a tendency to divide skills and employment programmes. An integrated approach at the local level is needed. Some areas have made tackling youth unemployment a local priority and have achieve significant reductions in youth unemployment numbers. Typically a successful approach means: ensuring that services are joined up on the ground; sharing data between agencies and tracking young people’s progress so that they don’t fall out of the system; and mapping local services and ensuring any gaps in provision are identified and addressed.


The UK faces a youth unemployment crisis. More needs to be done to ensure that young people are able to transition smoothly between education and work. This means ensuring:

  • That our vocational education system is fit for purpose, that it provides employers with the skills they need and allows young people to progress in and sustain work;
  • That young people are offered the chance to develop ‘soft’ skills via work experience placements;
  • That our careers advice and guidance system allows young people to make informed choices; and,
  • That services for young people are co-ordinated at a local level so young people don’t fall out of the system.

With better policies the UK can tackle both the current high levels of youth unemployment as well as its long-term causes. Unless concerted action is taken there is a risk the problem will become further entrenched.

This blog was originally published on the Policy Network's website.