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Jobless crisis for youth of London after Covid pandemic

·10-min read
Jobless crisis for youth of London after Covid pandemic

The capital’s youth unemployment has soared by 55 per cent to 105,000 since the start of the pandemic with 21 per cent of young people seeking work jobless, a joint investigation by the Evening Standard and The Independent has revealed.

The figure is five times the national jobless rate of 4.3 per cent for all ages and is even higher among young women, with almost one in four of those aged 16 to 24 in London unemployed, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The situation here is by some distance the worst in the country, with the West Midlands the next most affected region at 15 per cent and Scotland the least on nine per cent.

Most worrying is that 42 per cent of unemployed youths nationwide have been jobless for six months or more, with crushing consequences for their hopes and self-esteem.

These statistics expose the failure of the Government’s £2 billion Kickstart scheme, launched in September 2020 to fund employers to get under-25 year-olds on Universal Credit into employment at minimum wages, but which has resulted in just 96,700 of the targeted 250,000 roles being filled.

The scheme was hampered by poor design which initially deterred small and medium-sized businesses from participating. Belated modifications failed to generate sufficient uptake resulting in a success rate of just 40 per cent, with the scheme set to be concluded in March 2022.

The spike in youth unemployment comes despite job vacancies rising last month to a record of nearly 1.2 million countrywide, leading to both a lack of jobs and a surfeit of work existing contemporaneously and pointing to a stark mismatch.

In a five-day investigation into the scale of young joblessness and its cost to society, we begin by focusing on two young people who were working before the pandemic but have been unemployed since.

We speak to experts who reflect on the cost to society and individuals of the mismatch between the skills and experience supplied by young people and that demanded by bosses.

4,000 job applications, 7 interviews and zero responses

Paulo was excited. After diligently making up to 10 job applications a day for two years, he had finally cracked an interview for an entry-level administrative position at a finance company — and as the interview progressed, he felt his hopes rising. “My answers seemed to really hit the mark,” said Paulo. “I thought, wow, after all this time, could this be it?” But as the questions rained in, Paulo got anxious and started to fidget. “I could feel the mood in the room changing,” he said. “My nervousness was a bit off-putting.”

The 23-year-old from Stratford, whose dream is to become a City commodity broker like his father, never heard back. Not even a courtesy call. Despite making, he estimates, 4,000 job and apprenticeship applications over a two-year period prior to the pandemic, he secured just seven interviews. And no jobs. “Each application took me up to 90 minutes because I always tried to mould myself to each position and put thought into it,” he said. “You get an automated response thanking you for your application and in most cases you never hear another word. Those seven interviews, I never even got told I had been turned down. There was no feedback. I was ghosted. You have no idea where you are going wrong. You can’t imagine how hard it is to keep trying.”

That barren two-year run was broken in 2019 — albeit briefly — when Paulo had a breakthrough. He got hired by a caterer via the online jobs platform Coople to be a part-time waiter and barman to work for £10 an hour at banqueting venues across London, including the Waldorf Hotel and Twickenham Stadium. It was only two days a week but at last he was making progress. But then Covid hit and in August last year the caterer said they had to let him go. Paulo was once again making job application after job application. “It is soul destroying,” he said. “Two years of trying and failing after I left college and well over a year of not working since Covid has left me feeling utterly empty.”

‘There was no feedback, I was ghosted,’ says Paulo (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
‘There was no feedback, I was ghosted,’ says Paulo (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Paulo is one of 105,000 Londoners aged 16-24 who are registered as unemployed — and one of 24,000 young people who have suffered the crushing effects of long-term unemployment.

In a week-long exposé of the problem starting today, we tell the stories of young people struggling to find work since the pandemic and address two critical questions: Why is the jobless rate of young Londoners, at 21.3 per cent, almost six times higher than the unemployment rate of 25-34-year-olds? And why is this happening when job vacancies have risen to a record of almost 1.2 million countrywide?

Steve Haines, spokesman for Impetus, a group that helps charities transform the lives of disadvantaged youths, said young people have borne the economic brunt of the pandemic. “Young people with the least experience were the first to be laid off. Later, when vacancies opened up, they lacked experience putting them at the back of the queue and pointing to a skills mismatch between employers’ demands and what young people have to offer. A significant proportion of unemployed young people need support before they have the skills and confidence required.”

Polly Hughes, of City Gateway, an east London charity supporting hundreds of disadvantaged young people into work every year, said: “Young people have been caught in a perfect storm. To get a sustainable job they need the right experience and skills. Work placements and apprenticeships provide this, but almost 80 per cent of entry-level apprenticeships and work placements were cut or paused due to Covid. As the job market opened up, there has been increased competition for entry level roles with two years’ worth of school leavers and graduates looking. Combined with older workers returning to the labour market, the impact is pushed further down the chain. This affects those most who have the least experience, however talented they may be.”

Dr Joe Marshall, chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business, said the jobless statistics revealed “a skills mismatch standing in the way of the nation’s recovery”. It was predicted in 2019 by the Industrial Strategy Council, an independent government advisory group, that warned “the skills mismatch is predicted to worsen significantly” and that “government and individuals will all have a role to play in reskilling and upskilling the existing workforce”, with maths, English, and digital and communication skills key.

Paulo is a case in point. His problems started when he left school with below par GCSE grades in English and Maths that scuppered his dreams of a brokerage job. He said: “My grandmother died during my GCSEs. I missed an exam because I was so distraught. We were very close. I got Ds and Cs and below. After that I went to college to get a Btec in book-keeping but I lost momentum and failed.” He grew up in a middle-income household where they were taught that hard work was rewarded, but five years ago his father’s brokerage went under, putting the family under strain.

He said: “My dad hasn’t worked since. I wanted to pull my weight like my siblings. I have three older brothers and sisters and they all have decent jobs, but I have faced constant failure.”

He added: “I go online every day and I see lots of vacancies for entry-level jobs but they are asking for candidates with several years’ experience. Even my friends who went to uni can’t get proper jobs and feel lucky to work as a barista.”

For Paulo, rebuilding his confidence has become a daily battle. He said: “I felt very depressed. I never wanted to let anyone know because I didn’t want to burden anyone.”

His goal is to get office-based work so he can learn transferable skills and build his way up, step by step, to work in the City. He said: “I have been working on myself to improve my verbal presentation and sound more sophisticated. I have an interview for an apprenticeship coming up. On the day I will tell my mind it will be all right, but my hands will tell me it’s going to be bad.” He laughed nervously. “I think I can do this. I so want to get a job and make my parents proud. Maybe this time.

Derry’s story

Derry arrived for our meeting looking sharp in a suit and tie.

“I have interviews for reception work at two four-star hotels, one at the Hilton in Angel and one at the Barbican,” he declared. “My motto is be prepared.”

The 29-year-old from Hackney has been unemployed since Covid scuppered his job as a restaurant administrator and he has made about 1,500 job applications in the last year — yielding zero interviews — so these two interviews represented a major opportunity.

‘The problem is you never get a response,’ says Derry (Matt Writtle)
‘The problem is you never get a response,’ says Derry (Matt Writtle)

But Covid was not the first time Derry’s world had been upended. Nine years ago, having completed a two-year plumbing course, Derry was following his passion of working in the building trade in the footsteps of his father when he suffered a headache, blacked out and woke up three days later in the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

“I had a brain tumour. They did a biopsy and it was benign, but if it had grown any bigger they thought it would become cancerous, so I had to have radiotherapy, and the biopsy affected my balance and gave me dizzy spells. It meant I could no longer work on a construction site.”

As Derry lay in bed recovering, he watched a lot of TV, especially the Food Channel. “My dad joked, ‘You watch so many food programmes, you should become a chef’.”

When he was strong enough, he signed up for a catering course at Hackney College and emerged with an NVQ, getting work as a kitchen porter and commis chef for £11 an hour.

“It was all going well, but then because of my health history, I was told that I shouldn’t be working in a kitchen,” he said. “My manager moved me to a job in the back office sorting out reservations. I was there for four months but then Covid hit and because I was designated high-risk, I had to self-isolate. I was on furlough for eight months but the restaurant went bust. I have not worked since.”

Derry worries whether he will ever again find an employer as understanding as his last.

“My balance is about 10 per cent affected so new tasks can take a bit longer to get the gist of, but once I know how to do something, I am a whizz. How will I find another job where they know me and where I feel valued?” Derry applies for more than 30 jobs a week.

“The problem is you never get any response. After a while you feel p***** off. I’ve got work experience but still I’m not cutting through.

“I don’t know where I’m going wrong. I am loyal and reliable but until someone takes a chance on me, they won’t know that. My hopes are riding on two interviews coming up. I just need someone to give me a break so I can show them what I’m made of.”

Postscript

Since our interview, Paulo and Derry have had contrasting fortunes. Paulo has landed an apprenticeship as a business administrator with Hurak Education Services. Derry did not get the receptionist jobs.

The department for Work and Pensions said it had “acted quickly and decisively to support young people impacted by the pandemic, opening specialist youth hubs here in London, expanding our youth offer to 16 and 17-year-olds and supporting more than 21,000 young people into Kickstart jobs in the capital”.

They added: “We’re committed to helping young people get their foot on the ladder.”

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