It is a very difficult time to be young. The recession has hit young people particularly hard, with youth unemployment hovering just below a million and not showing much response to the green shoots of recovery.
In addition there are regular reports from business and employers groups that young people are ill equipped for the world of work. The academic emphasis on our education system is leaving young people lacking many of the key attributes which go to make desirable employees – the ability to work in a team, to get on with people, to empathise. Last year, the National Youth Agency established a commission into youth work in formal education, and found that bringing youth workers into schools helped develop these ‘soft’ skills which employers often cited were hard to find in today’s new recruits.
These types of skills have been shown to be important not just for employment, but also in building a better society for us all. An evaluation of the National Citizens Service found that improving teamwork, communication and leadership, improving social mixing and encouraging community involvement – all crucial characteristics of this team-led social action programme -contributed to a more responsible, cohesive and engaged society.
There is evidence that young people are seeing the opportunities that volunteering or social action offer. According to official national statistics there has been a significant increase in the proportion of young people aged 16-24 years (up from 25% to 31%) who had volunteered in the last 12 months compared to 2005/06.
In addition, rising youth unemployment may have an impact on young people’s volunteering. A study by youth charities BeatBullyingand MindFull found that nearly half of young people who do not volunteer would be likely to do so if it led to a job or training. 54% of those surveyed who already volunteered would do more if it offered the prospect of employment or training.
Getting young people involved in social action, or volunteering, lies at the heart of many National Youth Agency programmes.
We are a key partner in the NCS Network, which offers young people a four week programme that culminates in a social action project, benefiting both young people and society. We also manage Think Big, a £1.5m youth programme, supported by Telefonica UK/O2. The programme provides young people with opportunities to set up projects to make a difference to their own lives and to the well-being of their communities.
Another programme which takes the best of both of these was our Social Action Fund project, supported by Think Big and the Cabinet Office. The aim was to engage young people who have completed the NCS programme, as well as some who hadn’t any previous experience, and encourage them to continue volunteering and engaging in positive volunteering activity.
It worked. An evaluation found that of the young people who had never previously been involved in volunteering 84% agreed that they would continue to do so. Of those young people who had previously volunteered often 96% reported they would do more.
Our current Social Action Journey Fund project, focuses on a younger age group, disadvantaged young teenagers, aiming to establish a pattern of volunteering from late childhood.
Running alongside all these programmes is the skill and experience of youth workers, dedicating their time to helping young people in their personal and social development and equipping them with the practical skills they need to be resilient.
In these challenging times, young people are finding their own ways to get essential employment skills and experience, and we are developing a new generation of socially minded young people who see the power of volunteering, as a result.