NEET or not: volunteering a new way forward

Newsletter articles

1 Sep 2011

Employment Studies Issue 14

Becci Newton, Senior Research Feloow

Becci NewtonThe position of young people in our society is a significant concern since they have been disproportionately affected by the economic downturn. One in five young people aged 16 to 24 were unemployed at the start of this year[1] and many are still unable to find work. Unemployment is affecting those traditionally identified as at risk, such as the low skilled, but is also impacting on young graduates.

In recent years, much attention has focused on those young people most at risk of poor outcomes. There is a well-developed evidence base about: the causes and characteristics, of the group of 16 and 18 year olds who are not in education, employment or training (NEET); their orientations to learning, training and work; and the risks and long-term consequences of NEET. There is an emerging consensus about what is needed to secure their participation.

Social disadvantage is a strong predictor of becoming NEET that has led to the debate on early intervention and the recent Allen Review. In the meantime, however, young people who are currently unemployed require support, particularly those most vulnerable to long-term negative outcomes.

Exploring the benefits of volunteering

While IES has a strong track record of work related to the needs of low-skilled and disadvantaged young people, until recently we had little experience of working in the arena of young people’s volunteering and civic engagement. This changed when we were commissioned by v, The National Young Volunteers’ Service, to undertake research to explore any unique contribution of volunteering to the development of employability skills and attributes which might assist young people’s transitions.[2] This extensive study assessed personal development as a result of full- and part-time volunteering and explored what motivated young people to volunteer and the wider benefits they, and others, identified from their activities.

The study was based on longitudinal research with 25 young volunteers, in-depth interviews with people supporting them, and local stakeholders. The young people ranged from disadvantaged 16-to-18 year olds with few qualifications to 23-to-24 year olds with undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications. While skill levels varied, it was common for young people to have encountered social disadvantages. The sample included young care leavers and care givers, ex-offenders, and young people with disabilities and chronic health conditions. Discussing their life histories revealed that many had struggled in school and had faced bullying and isolation from peers. Focusing on the most disadvantaged young people, what was immediately impressive was that these young people were highly articulate and were motivated wholly or in part to volunteer for altruistic reasons. There was a strong desire to ‘help other people’ to avoid the problems and challenges that they had themselves faced and to ‘give back’ as an appreciation of the support that they had once received.

Young people reported significant benefits arising from volunteering, which included:

  • an enhanced CV, greater insight into careers and development of networks which might assist future transitions
  • improved communication, teamworking, problem solving, planning and management, and time-management stkills
  • a chance to demonstrate commitment, motivation and enthusiasm which resulted in increased confidence and an improved understanding of capabilities.

Their mentors also reported the distance travelled by volunteers and noted that organisations had also gained. Volunteers brought fresh ideas, energy and new perspectives and their presence led to an
understanding among adults that negative stereotypes of young people are unfair to many. Young people gained further confidence since their contribution was appreciated and valued.

Lasting impacts

Follow-up interviews with young people revealed that many had enrolled at college; this was notable since initially when we spoke about their life histories, they had rejected taking their studies further. It was clear that volunteering helped young people to realise that they were capable of much more than they had previously thought. This is a highly positive finding – not just for young people, but for policy – which from 2013 will require young people to remain in education for longer. But how does it fit with evidence about what works for young people NEET?

Our evaluation of the Activity Agreements (AA) as a tool to support young people NEET identified that developing confidence was at the core of progression.[3] This confirms the value of the outcomes achieved through volunteering. However, we identified some contrast between the groups of young people we encountered for each study which might prove instructive about when volunteering can assist young, unemployed people. The volunteers – even the most disadvantaged – were highly articulate
and motivated to a degree, although oriented towards work more than learning. This was in stark contrast to many AA participants whose re-engagement was at an early and critical stage. This group required intensive and ongoing support in order to take a small step forward and start a journey of personal development. In essence, without support it was unlikely that they would have started and been retained within volunteering.

The way forward

In our view, volunteering can provide a supportive and critical stepping stone to full (re-)engagement, however, some young people will require personalised and tailored support from trusted adults, to be ready for volunteering. The recent public spending cuts are having a significant impact on the availability of youth services, and local authorities and their partners will determine the type and nature of support that will be available. It is too early to know if more young people NEET can be encouraged to take up volunteering as a route to gain confidence and to develop themselves in readiness for future work or learning, nor if the infrastructure will be put in place that would encourage this to happen. However, for those who do pursue volunteering, the experience is certainly valuable and worthwhile.

Comments from volunteers:

Ben wanted to volunteer to support others because of the support he had himself received when young.

‘I was in foster care and so, for me, it was quite a massive thing to give back, give something to other people.’

Natalie had been homeless and was now living in a hostel. She gained a clear sense of reward from volunteering.

‘The buzz, everyone’s doing it for free, and they don’t care that they’re not getting paid, they just like being part of something, and being one to help.’

Through volunteering Bethany was more confident about forming relationships:

‘We were doing something good and meeting all the different people, I managed to fit in with them and I was friendly. When I was at school it wasn’t the same because people weren’t friendly towards you so I didn’t feel very friendly back, but this time I felt friendly and happy so it was good.’

 Footnotes [Back]

[1] ONS, January 2011
[2] Newton B, Oakley J, Pollard E (2011) Volunteering: Supporting Transitions, v, The National Youth
Volunteering Service, London
[3] See for example, Newton B, Levesley T, Fearn H, Oakley J, Johnson C, (2009) Activity and Learning
Agreement Pilots: Programme Theory Evaluation, Working Paper 5: Small Step Progression in the
Activity Agreements, Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF): Sheffield