Bridging the Gap: Making young people a vital part of every workforce

Blog posts

16 Jan 2023

Cristiana Orlando, Health Foundation Reserch Fellow 
Abbie Winton, Research Fellow 
Kate Alexander, Research Officer 

Challenges with recruitment were one of the key issues facing employers in 2022. Following the pandemic, employers are struggling to fill vacancies as older workers leave the workforce with many not returning, and an increasing number of people becoming economically inactive due to ill health. This is compounded by the joint effects of the UK’s exit from the European Union, and the wider large-scale trends around an ageing population, automation and the rapidly transforming skills demands of the labour market.

Investing in the young workforce is an intrinsic part of the solution to these challenges. In our latest research for the Health Foundation’s Young People’s Future Health Inquiry, we explore employers’ views and experiences of youth employment following the pandemic, and in particular their practices around good quality work for young people. In our report, we outline recommendations addressing how employers can be supported to develop a talent pipeline of young workers by investing in good quality youth employment, drawing on evidence from a survey of 1,011 businesses and in-depth interviews with 40 employers across the UK.

Are employers offering good jobs to young people?

Despite the UK’s recruitment challenges, the research found that one-fifth of employers do not hire from the 22-25 age group, two-fifths do not hire from the 18-21 age group and two-thirds did not hire from the 16-17 group. Among those employers that do hire younger workers, there is a tendency to rely on young workers as a source of low-cost labour (26 per cent reported hiring younger workers because they are more affordable).

Furthermore, our research finds that the perception of good quality work differs between employers and young people. Employers identified the key facets of good work as being an enjoyable workplace environment (43 per cent); a job that feels interesting and fulfilling (42 per cent) and a job that offers opportunities to progress (41 per cent). Pay above industry standards and security and stability, which our previous research identified as key priorities for young people, were identified as crucial facets by a minority of these employers. For younger people from disadvantaged backgrounds in particular, the inability to access to job opportunities that provide decent pay and security, alongside progression opportunities, can have a scarring impact on their long-term career prospects, and consequently on wider life and health outcomes.

Why are employers not hiring younger workers?

To address some of these challenges our research sought to investigate the reasons preventing employers from hiring young people. According to employers, lack of skills (42 per cent), experience (36 per cent) and confidence (34 per cent) are the major obstacles that young people face to accessing good quality employment. Again, this differs from young people’s views, which highlight having connections and access to networks (in effect social capital), and good mental health, as well as accessible support for their mental wellbeing, as key elements that enable access to good work. However, many of the employers that we spoke to acknowledged that it was becoming harder for young people to access good work due to employers’ increasingly demanding requirements for experience, skills and qualifications and challenges tied to an increasingly skilled workforce, which constrains entry level opportunities at a skill level that is suitable for young people.

Finally, there was also a perception among employers that young people will ‘job hop’ so present a riskier investment, yet most reflected that the provision of good quality opportunities that provide progression and development, financial incentives, good management and flexibility, could help improve retention. This suggests that employers recognise that young people’s propensity to change jobs is, to some degree, directly influenced by their working conditions and employers’ ability to offer good work.

What support do employers need?

One-quarter of the employers included in the research reported having limited experience in hiring disadvantaged young people, and another quarter reported that they did not know if they employed young people with mental health conditions or caring responsibilities. Nevertheless, employers reported wanting more support to manage young people’s health in the workplace and call for improvements to careers guidance and education. However, they did not know what else could support them to provide better quality work. This lack of knowledge around the needs of the young workforce is particularly troubling and requires policy attention.

We welcome the Labour Party plans to put ‘health and wellbeing’ at the centre of employment strategy, by integrating employment support with local health services, since this recognises the inextricable link between health and employment outcomes. Yet, as with any health intervention, it is necessary to ensure that this type of support is delivered sensitively and expertly to ensure that the mental health crisis that young people are facing is not worsened. However, much like Labour’s plans, our recommendations acknowledge that multi-stakeholder, systemic approach is needed to support younger workers into good quality employment.

In the context of rising living costs and a tight labour market, providing good quality work for young people will benefit employers, individuals, and the economy. However, to invest in the young workforce and support it to thrive, employers must be willing to provide training and progression opportunities and pay younger workers sufficiently to help with retention. To do this, employers require adequate support from both policy and intermediary organisations, through coordinated and coherent multi-stakeholder approaches.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.