Written by Adele Kersey
People who are already at an economic or social disadvantage have historically been the worst hit by financial crises and disadvantaged young people after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 are not the exception. These young people include those with ongoing family problems, insecure housing, or ill mental health (Department for Education, 2014) although this list is not exhaustive. The NEET rate (percentage of people who are not in education, employment, or training, and therefore disengaged from the labour market) was calculated for the first time in the 1980s when policymakers were concerned about the risk of having a “lost generation” of young people affected by multiple, complex disadvantages. By introducing the measurement, policymakers intended to gage a better understanding of the specific characteristics of those who are disengaged from the labour market, to subsequently assess the best way of reengaging these individuals (O’Reilly Et al., 2018). However, it is not evident that policymakers have exhaustively considered the multiplicity of reasons that these particular young people may be NEET, at least not within the economic landscape that has dominated Europe in the last 15-20 years. By considering these reasons more carefully, it may be that policymakers would be able to refocus re-engagement programmes and design programmes that not only achieve their ‘hard’ objectives but also achieve some ‘soft’ outcomes that may better help to reengage particularly disconnected young people further down the line. Indeed, research into re-engagement interventions suggests those who develop these programmes primarily focus on economic and social policy as opposed to experts in behaviour change, disengagement, and reengagement (Mawn et al., 2017). This may well be a key contributing factor to why many youth support programmes have very little impact on youth employment overall and why many evaluations of programmes state that the hard-to-reach groups did not benefit from the Programme in any significant way (Mawn et al., 2017).
Hard and soft outcomes
EU and UK Reengagement Programmes aimed at young people who are NEET focus primarily on the ‘hard’ outcomes. These complex outcomes typically include short-term and long-term re-engagement into the labour market (employment, education, and training) with some programmes also measuring the young person’s wage increases after a period of time. Very few Programmes measure the ‘soft’ outcomes such as changes in attitude and self-confidence or the ‘distance travelled’ e.g. how much improvement the young person has made and the skills they have gained whilst taking part in the Programme. These soft outcomes can be vital for re-entry into the labour market, particularly for those facing multiple social and economic disadvantages and who are hard to reach/help. The soft skills are undeniably a prerequisite to achieving EET status (engaged in Education, Employment, or Training) or even beginning to work towards this status e.g. being in a position to look for jobs or training programmes suited to them.
The NEET rate in the UK averaged at 12% for 16-24-year-olds between 2012 and 2021 compared to an average of 16% across European Union (EU) member states (Statista, 2022). In 2012, as a response to rising levels of youth unemployment, the UK government announced a Youth Contract which aimed to reach people who were hardest to reach and support them to reengage in education, training, or employment. The Programme included work experience places, wage incentives, and support from employment advisers (Department For Education, 2014). Analysis of the first two years of the Youth Contract concluded that the Programme was largely unsuccessful in achieving its re-engagement aims. Despite The Department of Education recognising that support from a key worker was crucial to achieving re-engagement for the young people NEET who are hardest to reach/ hardest to help, the Programme focussed heavily on the hard outcomes (sustained employment, increase in wages) and did not give sufficient credence to the soft outcomes that could have been imperative to re-engaging the hardest to reach/ help young people in the future (changes in attitude and self-confidence, development of workplace skills, stabilisation of housing or family situations). Indeed, independent analysis of the programme suggests that the scheme was rolled out nationally without any prior testing of its suitability to meet the needs of the young people it aimed to engage (Maguire, 2015). It seems that although what works for the hard-to-reach/ help groups was somewhat considered throughout the programme’s development, through the assignment of a key worker, their needs were not focused on sufficiently. As well as this lack of focus, the soft outcomes were not even measured, therefore any progress that the young people made on the programme (distance travelled) could not be evidenced and therefore any success in this area would not be considered in the evaluation of the Programme, deeming it a failure because it did not achieve only its hard outcomes.
Between 2012 and 2021, France has seen a similar unemployment landscape as the UK, with an average youth NEET rate of 13% in 2012 and 2021 compared to the EU average of 16% (Eurostat, 2022). As a response to the EU’s call for a Youth Guarantee in all EU member states in 2013, France set up a Youth Guarantee Scheme which aimed at reengaging young people of NEET status back into the labour market as well as aiming to increase the young person’s autonomy and capacity to act. Unlike the UK’s Youth Contract, the scheme achieved soft outcomes and unlike in the UK, credited these soft outcomes when assessing the effects of the scheme. The Scheme evaluation states that as well as reengagement into the labour market, it aimed to help the most disadvantaged young people out of ‘situations of great vulnerability, particularly in terms of housing and health’ (Scientific Committee in charge of the evaluation of the Youth Guarantee (SCYG), 2018, p. 69). The evaluation acknowledged that the ‘collective support’ aspect, which involved intensive group counselling, provided skills and knowledge prerequisite to reengagement, such as re-socialisation that ‘seemed essential’ for restoring confidence, inculcating the rules of the labour market and sometimes helping to ‘abandon deviant behaviour’ (Scientific Committee in charge of the evaluation of the Youth Guarantee, 2018, p.7). The evaluation also considered the reasons why some people exited the programme early, the development in the autonomy of the young people on the scheme, the scheme’s effects on their standard of living, housing situation, and financial wellbeing. In this way, the Youth Guarantee in France clearly aimed to assess the characteristics of the hardest to reach/ help groups of young people, in order to develop programmes better suited to them in the future. The quantitative data attained relating to the financial wellbeing, housing situations and driving licence status of the young people on the scheme displays how the scheme not only considered these important steps towards becoming EET, but that the scheme achieved success in the less concrete and immediate results, in ways arguably integral to beginning to engage the intended group of young people back into the labour market in the future.
By assessing the two country’s schemes it would appear credible to suggest that the soft outcomes of programmes such as an increase in self-confidence, self-esteem, and capacity to act autonomously and improvements in housing or family situations should be measured in future studies on NEET Programmes and further research should be conducted on whether these reengagement programmes contribute to improving the skills and conditions prerequisite to gaining EET status for young, disadvantaged individuals. This would be helpful for then assessing what works and what does not work for these hardest to reach/ hardest to engage young people who are NEET, as was the aim when the term ‘NEET’ was coined. Evidently, focusing on re-engaging young people straight into the labour market by introducing economic policies such as subsidised wages for employers, without first helping the young person attain the prerequisite skills or lifestyle conditions necessary for reengagement, has failed time after time.