Will the Youth Obligation work for disadvantaged young people?

Newsletter articles

27 Sep 2016

Employment Studies Issue 24

Jonathan Buzzeo, IES Research Fellow

Jonathan BuzzeoLast summer, the government announced plans to introduce the Youth Obligation for all young jobseekers to prepare them for entry into work or training after six months. Two recently published pieces of IES research shed light on the perceived impact that this policy will have, including among those who are ‘hardest to reach’.  

The Youth Obligation for claimants aged 18-21 receiving Universal Credit was announced in the 2015 Summer Budget. It is due to be rolled out nationally from April 2017, and will require all young jobseekers to attend a three-week intensive ‘boot camp’ from day one of their claim. It aims to provide this group with the high-quality job-search skills necessary to move quickly into work or training. The boot camp itself will comprise a series of structured activities, including workshops, tasks to be completed at home and individual feedback sessions. They will be delivered in such a way so as to encourage claimants to assess their job-search skills and reflect on how these can be improved, taking on board advice and tips as well as examples of good practice.

The policy also includes a mandatory requirement for young jobseekers, should they still be claiming after six months, to apply for an apprenticeship or traineeship, gain work-based skills, or undertake a mandatory work placement. Again, the intention is to provide claimants with the skills and experience necessary to move into sustainable employment opportunities.

Positive effects of the ‘boot camp’

The three-week intensive ‘boot camp’, or Intensive Activity Programme (IAP) as it is known formally within DWP, was trialled in parts of Yorkshire early in 2015 to assess its impact. IES evaluated the claimant experience and the results of this study were recently published[1]. The trial was open to all – regardless of age, education or level of labour market experience. Our findings showed that it was particularly beneficial for younger claimants (ie those aged 18-24). While a varied range of experiences were reported, when informed about the trial, this group tended to express more open attitudes towards the programme and to learning new job-search skills than older claimants. They also more commonly identified techniques and approaches discussed during the group workshop, which were completely new to them, and felt more confident in applying these skills in their future job-search.

IES explores implications for the most disadvantaged

In spite of these positive outcomes, commentators have raised concerns about how suitable this and other elements of the Youth Obligation will be for vulnerable young people, such as those who have experienced homelessness. The barriers that these groups face in terms of finding a route into employment are complex, interacting and varied. They go beyond difficulties in looking for and applying for work, and include broader issues such as: low levels of confidence, self-esteem, and personal motivation; mental health and substance misuse problems; lack of independent living skills; and cultural and financial barriers to travelling. Previous research has shown how homeless young people find it difficult to meet the terms of their benefit claim, and are disproportionately affected by benefit sanctions compared to the wider claimant population[2].

With these issues in mind, the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint commissioned IES to seek the views of vulnerable young people, as well as training providers and charitable organisations who work with them, to further explore the possible implications of the Youth Obligation for the most disadvantaged.

Will the Youth Obligation work for disadvantaged young people?Our findings showed that some interviewees were welcoming of the three-week intensive boot-camp. Vulnerable young people quite often require support to improve their job-search skills, such as help in putting together a CV or covering letter. However, respondents were keen to point out that the activities that young claimants are required to undertake should not be too challenging and risk knocking their self-confidence any further. They also felt that this set of activities should not be delivered in isolation, given the array of support needs disadvantaged groups present. These young people will also need access to mentoring and emotional support in order to make progress. This could be facilitated by Jobcentre Plus through an early and thorough assessment of claimants’ needs, making referrals to specialist support services where needed.

Further issues to address

Reservations were also expressed about the Youth Obligation’s mandatory requirement that young jobseekers apply for a training opportunity or work placement after six months of claiming. The young people we spoke to, who had experience of unemployment and/or were living in supported accommodation, consistently stressed that they would only be encouraged to engage in a training opportunity or work placement if it was linked to their career aspirations, or if it did not present other barriers such as being too far to travel or not providing sufficient pay. If Jobcentre Plus were unable to provide access to high-quality opportunities they could see value in, many felt that they would simply disengage and stop claiming benefit. This would risk damaging their life chances still further, with a high cost to wider society and the public purse[3].

Charitable organisations and training providers with experience of supporting vulnerable groups meanwhile highlighted how this six-month period would not be long enough for some of their clients to prepare for such a major transition. They felt that those who had multiple, complex difficulties relating to entering the labour market should be given more time to address these barriers. Otherwise, this policy would be setting up some young people to fail.

We now know that oversight of funding to deliver interventions as part of the Youth Obligation will be given to county council areas where local devolution agreements are in place. While most of the population in England are yet to be covered by these agreements, the involvement of local combined authorities in the delivery of the initiative presents an opportunity to address the wider needs of disadvantaged groups taking part. Namely, by providing a greater degree of direct access to local authority services and making substantive use of these to address any additional barriers to employment. However, unless mandatory aspects of the Youth Obligation are implemented with a degree of flexibility – with vulnerable groups being given additional time to make progress, and an element of choice in which course or placement they undertake – then our research suggests that this policy will not best support, and may risk further alienating, the hardest to reach.


[1] Buzzeo J, Marvell R, Everett C, Newton B (2016), Tackling unemployment among disadvantaged young people, Centrepoint

[2] Homeless Link (2013), A high cost to pay: The impact of benefit sanctions on homeless people, Homeless Link

[3] Coles B, Godfrey C, Keung A, Parrott S, Bradshaw J (2010), Estimating the Life-time Cost of NEET: 16-18 Year Olds Not in Employment, Education or Training, University of York