What can employers and HR do to tackle rising youth unemployment?

Levels of unemployment among the UK’s young people are soaring. With the government calling on businesses to step in, Tara Craig asks employers, recruiters and education experts where the responsibility lies, and what employers can do to help.

Even more alarming than the news that unemployment in the UK has hit 2.43m, its highest level since 1995, is the fact that the number of 18 to 24-year-olds out of work reached 722,000 in the same period, up 46,000 from the three months to March 2009. The Office of National Statistics also reports that 12.6% of 16 to 24 year olds – around 928,000 people – are now unemployed.

And it doesn’t look likely to improve any time soon. Confederation of British Industry (CBI) director-general Richard Lambert says: “These numbers are grim, but they would have been a lot worse but for the way that flexible working practices and pay freezes and cuts have limited the damage. So it is too soon to call the turn, and we still expect the unemployment rate to hit three million early next year.”

Business secretary Lord Mandelson, speaking on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme on Wednesday, admitted that the current level of unemployment is unacceptable. Referring to the plight of the young unemployed, he said: “We need public and private employers, as well as those in the [charity] sector, to help us mount this national campaign to back young Britain.”

While Lord Mandelson is looking to businesses to remedy the situation, Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, is calling on the government to do more to get people back into work. If they fail, he predicts another generation will be lost to mass unemployment.

Research released by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) shows 43% of 18-34 year olds believe not enough is being done by government, schools, universities and employers to help new graduates get their first jobs. Almost 67% blame a lack of government funding for the poor prospects for graduates in the recession.

Given that so few government schemes to get the young back into work seem to be effective, it seems that employers must take it upon themselves to do something. But what? And how, given the number of people applying for each role, can they ensure they recruit the best people?

Sonja StocktonSonja Stockton, head of recruitment, PricewaterhouseCoopers

“We’ve held our nerve despite the economic climate, maintaining our student recruitment levels to ensure PwC comes out of the recession strongest.

“Solving youth unemployment cannot be the responsibility of employers alone, but our ongoing strategy of focusing on employability and education is responsible and well-timed, and can benefit students, communities and young people.

“We’re opening new opportunities for students to develop employability skills earlier, including a summer academy for first-year undergraduates, an online employability skills clinic, skills seminars and career showcases at schools.

“We’ve dealt with more than 12,000 applications so far this year. A high volume of applications means our selection process has to identify the right skills for our business, in a way that is both cost effective and fair.

“It’s also not just about recruitment for us. We need the communities we work in to be stable and healthy, and our community employability and education programmes have been maintained and expanded to focus on parts of London and Manchester, for example, that have been particularly hard hit by the recession.”

Mark Adams, HR director, Abbey

“The latest unemployment figures are worrying and highlight the challenging times young people face. (Abbey parent company) Santander’s vision is to be the best commercial bank in the UK. Britain’s school leavers and graduates are critical to helping us achieve our goal; these students are our potential talent of the future.

“We are actively recruiting for our 2009 graduate programme across the finance, risk, audit and retail divisions at the moment and we have a co-ordinated UK-wide recruitment drive to attract the best school leavers. We also recognise the need to consider new working models that are attractive to this group and we offer varied and flexible working opportunities to ensure we attract talent.

“With new employee engagement initiatives and best practice taken from Santander’s global banking network, we have created a strong employer brand that is appealing to school-leavers and graduates alike.

“By working closely with our recruitment partners we are applying stringent processes to our resourcing procedures to ensure we capture the best talent, those that will make a lasting contribution to our business in the years to come.”

Jack MarkiewiczJack Markiewicz, talent lead, PPMA and director HR and change, Swindon Borough Council

“Youth unemployment is a serious waste of talent which has to be bad for our future workforce and our current economy.

“Employers have a role to play in this, and one way to do so is by seriously committing to apprenticeships. Such schemes give young people a structured opportunity to learn new skills, as well as start to understand what they may want to do as a future career – it’s actually good for employers too as apprentices are seriously effective.

However, it’s not just up to employers. Young people need to take voluntary opportunities to get known and to gain new skills. A good way of gaining this experience is to get in touch with the local Citizens Advice Bureau or check out local voluntary opportunities on the web.”

John MayJohn May, chief executive, Career Academies UK

“We work with more than 700 fantastic, forward-thinking employers across the UK who firmly believe that investing in education is of the utmost importance – 800 young people are currently on six-week internships thanks to support from the UK business community.

“Businesses understand the benefits of supporting young talent as a way of talent-spotting, succession planning or diversifying their workforce. And it is thanks to supportive employers that many young people are being encouraged to raise their aspirations – to find their feet, gain experience and realise their full potential.

“There’s been too much talk, too many initiatives launched and too much blame laid at the door of employers. We know that young people want support; we know that employers want to give it. It’s now time for action.

“Our challenge to government is to put appropriate levels of funding and proper systems in place to ensure excellent brokerage between the worlds of business and education.”

Alison BurginAlison Burgin, executive director, Badenoch & Clark

“The opportunities for young people in the workplace are certainly still there. There’s no doubt these latest figures are worrying, but we’re seeing a lot of employers start to gear up recruitment activity again as they tentatively look to grow – young people will play a big role in that recruitment drive in the next coming months.

There are certainly a number of things employers can do to ensure they attract the right talent, whatever age they are. The tactics for attracting young people aren’t a million miles away from what any good employer should already be doing. Make sure you have a way of assessing potential and spotting transferable skills.

Look carefully at your employer brand and recognise it as the powerful recruitment tool that it is. Ensure you’re clear about what you’re looking for from the outset and use advice from trusted agencies to help identify the best candidates. Taking those kinds of steps will ensure employers recruit the young people who are likely to add real value to their business for many years.”

Samantha Weston

Samantha Weston, head of resourcing, Grant Thornton

“We do not just recruit graduates, but about 30 of our trainees each year come straight from school. We also offer internships and summer work experience placements. Our interns are part of the pipeline for our graduate intake for 2010 and ultimately our succession planning for managers of the future. If they are a good fit for the business we can potentially offer all those on a placement a graduate position for the following year or a deferred position for 2011 if they want to travel or pursue another interest.

“We do not want to fall into the trap of the last recession and be left with a dearth of candidates for management positions in a few years’ time. Instead, we are committed to training those entering the job market.

“Recruit for attitude, train for skill” is still a relevant philosophy for HR departments. Finding the most talented hires in a saturated market is difficult when hiring from the younger generation as they do not yet have the work experience which demonstrates their capability. We find that our best young recruits are those who are bright, enthusiastic and approach learning with an open mind.