Rishi Sunak’s announcement of the Kickstart Scheme in July 2020 filled me with optimism.
On paper, it was an impressive commitment: a £2bn investment into creating 250,000 jobs for young people in receipt of Universal Credit and at risk of long-term unemployment. The scheme was unquestionably reactive and in tune with the issues that young people were facing as a result of the pandemic. Furthermore, from the viewpoint of the Patrick Morgan Foundation, a charity committed to providing employability support to underprivileged young people in the UK, it served as crucial recognition of a longstanding problem.
The announcement of the scheme came at a particularly poignant moment in the wider timeline of youth unemployment, too. By the end of the summer period of 2020, thousands of redundancies caused by the pandemic had led to an oversaturation of the job market. One of the most damaging and inevitable consequences of this was that job seekers with several years’ work experience were being favoured, even for entry-level positions. Crucially, the government’s flagship scheme had set about to mitigate this.
However, as time has passed, it’s become clear that this pledge was perhaps a little too optimistic. In figures released by the DWP via FENews at the end of April, of 195,000 jobs created, only 16,600 had been filled – a role fulfillment rate of less than 9%. Clearly, in spite of the best intentions of the government, issues of bureaucracy and convoluted eligibility criteria have led to a failure to provide the lasting reassurance that young, unemployed people so desperately need.
Speaking to many London-based business owners about the slow uptake, there seem to be a few recurring themes. Beyond complicated applications and intense administrative processes, there was some disillusionment surrounding one of the original rules. At first, small businesses looking to hire fewer than 30 people via the scheme were forced to create consortiums in order to be eligible, causing a chasm between the types of businesses that were able to benefit from the scheme. Seemingly, the inefficacy of the scheme actually increased disparity where it sought to alleviate it.
Fortunately, this stipulation has now been changed to allow businesses to apply directly, although this delay has resulted in a backlog. At the end of April, the DWP admitted that since 16 March, it has taken, on average, 21 days to process an application. Addressing this, a young jobseeker in our network admitted to feeling “detached” from the process, detailing that he had found the response rate of his Universal Credit work coach very slow. He did however acknowledge this may not be the fault of the individual. The government has also recently addressed this issue too, pledging £900m in funding for the DWP to recruit an additional 13,500 work coaches.
Another grey area of the scheme is job stability and retention. Critics of the scheme have pointed out similarities to the Jobs Retention (furlough) Scheme that was introduced in 2020, and the potential for businesses to exploit it as a means of acquiring short-term labour, subsidised by the government. This is an area of particular concern for us. Through the scope of our activities, we’ve seen that post-pandemic, young people are especially worried about feeling undervalued or expendable in the workplace, which may create a heightened sense of apprehension, and a subsequent dip in engagement with the scheme. It is vital that employers treat junior staff with the same respect as their more experienced colleagues. The result will undoubtedly be a more equitable workplace, and greater workplace fulfillment on the part of young people.
I realise that it is easy to condemn, and perhaps not as easy to give credit where it’s due. It’s clear to me that the intention behind this scheme is benevolent, which is in and of itself a great foundation for progress. We have even seen this commitment reiterated through initiatives introduced in the Queen’s Speech on the 11th May, such as the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill; though not directly aimed at young people, it is a clear indication of a governmental obligation to getting people into long-term employment.
As the grip of the pandemic begins to loosen on the UK, it’s clear to me that we need greater levels of involvement from both government and city businesses. It is imperative that we learn from the disappointments of the past year, and move into the new decade with an open mind – and I believe that starts with a broadening of employment eligibility criteria. Through the scope of our charity, I am incredibly fortunate to have the chance to interact regularly with an enormous number of talented young people, and I am optimistic about the perspectives these people will bring to their future employment. The only question now is… how do we untap this potential?