Youth unemployment: what makes a difference?

Young people have borne the brunt of the financial crisis, official figures suggest. Around one in five 16-24 year-olds are out of work nationally. New research in Suffolk suggests many of them need a ‘critical friend.’

Picture credit: Andreas Andrews

Our new research suggests good relationships between those that are unemployed and the staff tasked to support them into employment are vital.

 However, eight out of every 10 young people who expressed an opinion in this study had a very poor opinion of the government’s Jobcentre Plus support service.

We found a clear disconnect between what unemployed young people expected and the service they actually received. They hoped for practical assistance in completing CVs, job searching, completing application forms and even guidance on using the official Universal Jobsmatch website. What they received was often a referral to a third party such as The Princes Trust or Papworth Trust to complete a short course.

 In response to concerns over youth unemployment, Suffolk County Council commissioned University Campus Suffolk to investigate young people’s experiences of unemployment in the Greater Ipswich area. Drawing upon in-depth interviews and focus group data, the study focused on young people’s experiences of employment services and what unemployed young people believed would support and assist them to progress into employment, training or additional learning.

Fifty one young people aged 16-24 years took part in the study. All of them had been out of work for more than three months at the time of the research, which was conducted between July 10th and August 30th 2013. The study purposely engaged with young people across the Greater Ipswich area in five different locations: Ipswich; Felixstowe; Needham Market; Stowmarket and Woodbridge/Wickham Market.


The findings will inform the development of the Greater Ipswich Youth Guarantee, which aims to support every young person effectively towards gaining employment. This will help eradicate the current blight of youth unemployment in Suffolk.

According to the Office of National Statistics, 381,300 18 to 24 year olds were claiming JSA nationally in July 2013, down 8,200 (2.1%) from June 2013. This trend was reflected at the four Jobcentre Plus offices attended by the participants. There the number of 17 – 24 year olds claiming JSA in July 2013 reduced by 55 (3.8per cent) from June 2013, 1.7 per cent above the national rate. 


 The participants consisted of 39 males (76 per cent) and 12 females (24 per cent) and table below provides an outline of the geographical areas they lived in. stu3

Research Findings

All the young people stated that they were keen to gain employment and that they were willing to take any job that became available. However, many of them lacked recognised qualifications and/or work experience, which employers tend to seek.

In addition a large number of these young people were experiencing a range of issues that they believed negatively impacted upon their ability to gain employment: learning difficulties, mental health conditions or a criminal record.

One in five of our participants in five told us they had either a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia or dyspraxia; had been diagnosed as being on the Autistic Spectrum or had a diagnosed mental health condition such as depression.  Worryingly, the majority of them had never disclosed this to Jobcentre Plus (JCP) staff.

For those young people who have learning difficulties, the emphasis placed by JCP on using an online record keeping and job searching facility is an additional challenge, yet there is no formal support in place to assist them. Furthermore, those with very poor standards of written English and those with learning difficulties said they found online job applications difficult, and that no-one reviewed any application prior to submission.

There was a belief amongst some young people that employers would not employ individuals with mental health problems or learning difficulties.  That, together with a lack of specific feedback from potential employers or help to complete application forms, left them unsure how to progress and led to a sense of frustration.

Additional support needed would, according to our research, be universally appreciated. These young people acknowledge that they would benefit from having a ‘critical friend’ to support them through their journey to employment.  

Some factors that may support young people who are unemployed are: having a positive relationship with JCP staff, a supportive family network, and good social networks. High quality bespoke support; training and skills development from staff that are highly motivated could also help. However, for every supportive factor there were also factors that are counter-productive. Young people suggested that in smaller towns it was much harder to gain employment unless there was already some form of pre-existing relationship with the employer. The social capital that familial networks provided was seen as a key factor in gaining employment in more rural locations. Therefore it was not surprising to find that young people overwhelmingly supported the idea of an advocate or a dedicated case officer to support them with their search for employment. This could help mitigate the many challenges that the young people faced in gaining employment.

This research informed Suffolk County Council of many of the frustrations felt by many young people who were unemployed. Those we spoke to all had aspirations of gaining employment, yet they felt they had no-one to provide the support that they needed. They overwhelmingly supported the idea of an advocate or a dedicated case officer who could provide practical support such as helping with the completion of application forms, effective job searching and developing CV writing skills.

Stuart Agnew and Dr Emma Bond are both Senior Lecturers in the School of Applied Social Sciences at University Campus Suffolk.


Leave a Reply