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The news that unemployment as a whole has continued to fall in the UK brought with it continued debate on the specific challenges surrounding youth unemployment. Although the latest figures do show a small reduction in the overall youth unemployment figure, the picture within many UK cities remains extremely challenging. In recent weeks I have visited several US cities that are taking innovative steps to tackle youth unemployment in their area, and that could hold significant lessons for UK policymakers.
A particularly important part of the youth unemployment debate at a policy level in the UK and the US is how central government and cities can best join up all of the organisations and programmes that impact on the ability of young people to secure work. That doesn’t just mean focusing on job centres or educators, but also the wider support system – housing providers, mental health services and transport authorities – each of which impacts on the chances of a young person finding a good job and staying in it.
Creating a coherent, accessible network of providers and other actors is no easy feat. It is a complex, difficult process that no city internationally can say it has mastered. And it’s not a new idea either – the notion of bringing services together in one location or under the same banner has long existed in one form or another and is seen as one way to improve access.
In our latest report on youth unemployment we highlighted Hertfordshire Connexions and the Youth Competence Centres in Antwerp as a strong example of this. Experts I’ve spoken to in the US refer to the LA YouthSource Centres, which bring together education and employment based services, as a model for potential replication in cities like New York.
The problem with these kinds of physical centres is that it takes a great deal of outreach work in order to succeed, and you’re still ultimately reliant on that young person walking through the door. Many of the young people most in need of support face multiple barriers to accessing it and will often stay within their local neighbourhood. Others, even those in close proximity, may not know that such a place exists regardless of how much outreach work is undertaken. Centres that provide access to a comprehensive range of services certainly have their benefits but they can’t serve everyone, particularly those that are the hardest to reach.
Young people would surely be better served if there was ‘no wrong door’. That is, whatever part of the system a young person engages with within a city – whether it’s a youth club, job centre or Work Programme provider, library or the council’s housing department, for example – that organisation or team will be willing and able to refer that young person on to additional or alternative support to help them improve their chances of getting a good job. It would not only help improve accessibility, but also help create pathways for young people through a system of cross-referrals.
This requires information and data sharing, and collaboration between partners. Several of the US cities I’ve visited in recent weeks have made steps in the right direction: Pittsburgh has Pittsburgh Works, Cleveland established MyCom and Detroit has a Youth Employment Consortium. There are countless other examples. All exist to facilitate best practice and information sharing, establish a collective voice and create new partnerships.
However, people I’ve spoken to in these particular cities attribute their ability to join things up to the fact they are relatively small and, in the context of the economic challenges the cities face, they have common goals. And yet even here, competition can still get in the way of genuine collaboration.
Beyond information and data sharing, effective collaboration requires shifting the focus onto the individual instead of departmental function or organisational mission, which in turn requires changes in the funding system, leadership and organisational change. At present, provision in its fragmented forms is failing young people. Healthy competition is a good thing but more and better collaboration could make a real difference.
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