Youth employment: How can we break down barriers and create opportunities?

Personnel Today’s recent research in partnership with learndirect revealed that 87% of employers feel that young people are not ready for the workplace when they leave school. Jo Faragher reports.

Organisations told us that they wanted school leavers to have more knowledge and experience of the workplace, as well as better guidance on how they can open up opportunities for young people, from traineeships to apprenticeships.

To examine these issues, Personnel Today and learndirect brought together seven employers – all with experience of nurturing young talent – for a roundtable discussion. We wanted to find out about their experiences of working with young people, and what employers of all types and sizes can learn from them.

Perceptions of young people

An overwhelming majority of employers that responded to Personnel Today’s survey thought school leavers were simply not ready for the workplace. Three-quarters said this was because they did not know how to behave in a work environment, while other concerns were around lack of experience and having “no sense of urgency”.


No room in curriculum for employability – Kirstie Mackey

For the employers that attended our roundtable, however, these worries were present but not insurmountable. Kirstie Mackey, head of the LifeSkills programme at Barclays, said one of the reasons the bank put its youth employment support programme in place was to equip young people with skills they cannot acquire at school.

She says: “There’s no room in the curriculum to talk about employability any more. Making sure that basic things like turning up for work at the same time every day are taught in school could help to build their confidence.”

The Hilton hotel chain has built a module into its apprenticeship programme to build up “work skills”. Rob Zajko, director of talent acquisition for EMEA, explains: “If they come from a school that has had regular exposure to business and the workplace they cope well, but some may never have set foot in a work environment.

“If you put the right programme in place, they pick it up quickly, but it’s about building that knowledge.”

Drivers behind youth employment

Interestingly, many employers have reported an improvement in managers’ perceptions of young people once they have witnessed how they have developed and grown. For a number of our roundtable attendees, what started as the “right thing to do” has become something to show real return on investment.

“Three years ago when we looked into this we found that we didn’t have a single person under 21,” says Sandy Macdonald, head of sustainability at Standard Life. “Certain areas hadn’t recruited for a number of years because technology was replacing roles. So we thought we should do something about it.”

He adds: “What’s interesting is what happened afterwards. Areas of the business that had negative perceptions about young people were impressed with them. Their literacy and numeracy was actually pretty good. So we built momentum from there.”

Claire Maydew

Improvement in other employees’ engagement – Claire Maydew

Kate Beasant, a resourcing partner for Nationwide, agrees: “When we first introduced the apprenticeship programmes, we did it as a corporate social responsibility thing.

“But after bringing them in and developing them, they’re now as strong as our graduate population and building reputation. There’s a massive business benefit to us.”

One of the unexpected benefits of taking on young people emerged at Marks & Spencer, where the retailer runs a four-week work placement scheme in partnership with the Prince’s Trust.

“We’ve experienced great benefits for our own employees in terms of their own engagement,” explains Claire Maydew, senior employee engagement manager. “The fact our employees have nurtured them through the four-week placement helps them to discover skills they never knew they had; it’s a tremendous sense of achievement.”

Bridging the generation gap

For many employers, managing the transition from school to the workplace can be a challenge. One of the key issues here is communication – formal interviews, for example, can be a daunting prospect, and many young people struggle to articulate their capabilities.

Dereth Wood, director of learning, policy and strategy for learndirect, argues that perhaps it’s time for employers to remove some of the traditional hurdles such as minimum exam results and interviews. “As they get more confident taking people on, the more employers say they no longer need to go through the normal proxies. They decide they’re going to look for potential, and will need to think about how they assess that at interview,” she says.


Building momentum – Sandy Macdonald

At Standard Life, this has been a learning curve for hiring managers, says Macdonald: We’ve had to do as much to educate people internally on recruitment as externally. We need to look at what is a reasonable expectation. Do you really need a degree for this job? How will you use it?”

Once young people are in the workplace, any problems acclimatising to the expectations of those around them and how they conduct themselves can easily be addressed.

“It’s a big transition from school, especially when you’re working for a multinational like ours,” says Sarah Bampton, talent programme manager at Fujitsu. “Occasionally, you’ll get someone who turns up at the wrong time, but a couple of words here or there and you can sort that out. It’s not impossible if you provide young people with the right roles and the right support mechanisms.”

Key influencers

It’s no secret that the young spend longer living with their parents than previous generations, and a consequence of this is that they lean on their family for guidance on potential career paths. For employers, however, this can be a mixed blessing.

Jez Brooks, professional development manager at technology company IBM, says that branding can be an issue with younger recruits, so making parents aware of opportunities can help.

He says: “One of the concerns I have is trying to build a pipeline and attract people into roles at IBM. We run a gap-year scheme that brings in 20 to 40 students per year for a year before they start university. But these students have tended to be those that are bit more confident or forward thinking, the ones who want something on their CV.

“We had one-gap year student who applied to do her year out with us, fully intending to go to university afterwards. Her father wanted her to keep on with her studies. Once he knew it was IBM and a ‘proper job’ he was fine.”

Standard Life’s Macdonald believes parents have a role to play in sharing positive stories about working life: “Part of the problem is we paint a picture in popular culture that ‘work’ means a lifetime of drudgery ahead.

“One of the big transformations we see is when people come in thinking they’re going to be making the tea or photocopying, and instead we train them up and set them to work. They’re independent, they’re earning their own money.”

Of course, the other key influencers in young peoples’ lives are teachers, and simply getting into schools to build relationships with them can be a challenge, according to Mackey from Barclays. “It’s really difficult to find someone who has responsibility for careers advice in a school,” she says.

“Once you do find the right person, they’re excited to have someone go in and be a real-life role model. Young people are often surprised by the range of careers you can have in an organisation, and that in Barclays, for example, we don’t all just sit at a till all day.”

Lessons for smaller employers

Even for larger employers with the right budget and resources, getting youth employment initiatives off the ground can be hard work, so how do smaller organisations cope? One of the ways some larger employers are tackling this is by sharing expertise within their supply chain.

Maydew explains that some of Marks and Spencer’s delivery partners have set up a hub model so smaller suppliers in their region can offer training through one provider. “This means that all each organisation needs to do is provide a work experience placement. We’re just starting to see the results of that, with young people going into jobs,” she says.

Bampton at Fujitsu is also a believer in “paying it forward” when it comes to giving young people opportunities. “We have seconded some of our apprentices to other organisations that don’t have them yet, and occasionally if we have good candidates but they’re not quite right for us, we pass their details on to other organisations in our supply chain,” she says.

Great expectations?

In the past, some employers have imposed barriers to young people entering the workforce unless they have a degree or a certain level of qualification, as learndirect’s Wood points out.

Jez Brooks

Parents’ awareness of the employer brand is important – Jez Brooks

“There’s a lot of debate around whether you recruit on qualifications or personal capability. Do you take people on potential and then ‘backfill’ on their qualifications, to help them to succeed another time? Sometimes people get into the workplace and say ‘this has given me a different perspective’, they see that knowledge in the context of work, and succeed.”

Zajko at Hilton recognises this, and the company now varies its minimum standard for a percentage of its intake. “We came across people who may have had instances in their life that had impacted on their ability. One girl had dropped out of school because she was bullied. This was nothing to do with ability, she had no qualifications, but there was a reason for that,” he says.

A further challenge is managing the expectations of a generation for whom a job for life is an alien concept. “The worst thing to say to them is ‘what do you want to be?’ Instead, we should be asking ‘what are you doing right now and what do you want to do next?” says Bampton.

She adds: “As employers, perhaps we need to readjust our mindset that if we get two great years out of this young person and they go out and tell a great story about our brand, that’s better than someone who stays for 40 years just churning the wheel.”

Often, it is simply a case of making young people aware of the vast array of careers available. At Marks & Spencer, for example, a lot of work has been done with schools to demystify the perception that retail is just stacking shelves and working on a till. While at Hilton, there is “everything from a resident beekeeper to a tram driver”, and this often leaves people surprised.

Moving forward

If taking on young people is to offer real business benefit, it’s important to put in some investment upfront, argued our roundtable delegates. Working with managers to get the best out of school leavers and offering support with the transition from school or college can make all the difference.

Dereth Wood

Employers are looking for potential – Dereth Wood

“The danger is we say we want to recruit young people and think it will be a panacea,” says Beasant at Nationwide. “We need to be realistic. You need the right line managers who will provide that support, rather than painting a perfect picture that they’re going to be amazing from the very start.”

At Fujitsu, a very simple but practical measure has helped with engagement and retention of apprentices. “We’ve found it worked well where you have more than one apprentice co-located. If you have one on their own with no peer support or who is with lots of older people, this can be the difference between success and failure,” says Bampton.

Finally, a spot of empathy will never go amiss, concludes Macdonald: “At some point we all have our first day in our first full-time job. I think as employers, it would help for us to cast our minds back and remember how that feels.”



  • Dereth Wood, director of learning, policy and strategy, learndirect.
  • Sandy Macdonald – head of sustainability, Standard Life.
  • Jez Brooks – professional development manager, IBM.
  • Sarah Bampton – talent programme manager, Fujitsu.
  • Kirstie Mackey – head of LifeSkills, Barclays.
  • Kate Beasant – resourcing partner, Nationwide.
  • Claire Maydew – senior employee engagement manager, Marks & Spencer.
  • Rob Zajko, director of talent acquisition EMEA, Hilton.
  • Rob Moss, editor, Personnel Today (chair).

One Response to Youth employment: How can we break down barriers and create opportunities?

  1. Avatar
    Janice knight 23 Jul 2014 at 5:13 pm #

    I have been working in my spare time as a volunteer and as a trainer on Preparing for Employment courses over the past 4 years. As an HR Manager I became concerned about the lack of understanding from young people about what is required in the work place. In addition to my HR role I set up my first job club for young unemployed people at a local college, then joined a charity working with young people whose lack of confidence and self eseem was holding them back. i have spoken with politicians and local councillors and other organisations about these concerns but I feel there is still a lot to do. Last week I worked with a group of 15/16 year students. They had all produced a CV which the school had helped them to prepare but when I talked about the realities of work they really did lack understanding. I focused on reliability, a good work ethic and the ability to work well in a team. From my perspective the employer can train them to do the job if they can demonstrate those attributes in the interview.