Digital solutions to tackle youth unemployment

16 Feb 2012 Voices

With the current focus on finding ways to support more young people into work, Dan Sutch puts forward the case for alternative work models.

With the current focus on finding ways to support more young people into work, Dan Sutch puts forward the case for alternative work models.  

When David Miliband launched Acevo’s new report on tackling youth unemployment, he warned that the cost of inaction could be as much as £28bn. Although it is absolutely right to tackle youth unemployment, its solutions still assume an all-too traditional model of work.

It is easy to describe this huge number of young people (more than one million at the last count) as a homogenous group when they are anything but. This group is made up of young people from different circumstances, with different motivations, skills and support networks.  Young people with multiple factors of disadvantage are of particular concern and we need to explore a range of ways of supporting this diverse population.

It is important to recognise the economic cost of not addressing these challenges but also the huge costs of not supporting young people as a ‘key asset’ to the UK. There is a social challenge here both to community cohesion and individual development – we need to find ways to support young people to participate fully in their communities, economically and socially.

In my view, to look for new ways to support unemployed young people, particularly those who are disadvantaged, starts with challenging the assumptions underlying how you get into employment in the first place.

At Nominet Trust we look to support imaginative applications of digital technology to redesign approaches to addressing social challenges. In light of this report it’s important that we rethink what ‘counts’ as employment and look for alternative and emerging markets and jobs that are available to young people.

For example, ‘gold-trading’ is an activity where successful gamers sell the online ‘goods’ they have gained/made for real money. Paying real money for virtual goods may be baffling to many, but it uses in-game skills to create physical world currency: it’s an example of where an entirely new market with entirely new jobs has emerged. There are other examples too of new markets and new roles. One of the clear routes to addressing youth unemployment then is not just focusing on training and routes to existing jobs, but to rethink how we support young people to use their existing skills to economically and socially participate.

Similarly, digital technology also transforms the working environment, making it unnecessary to just work for one employer, to have to work particular hours or in an office, in order to be productive.  If we learn from micro-volunteering platforms, such as Sparked, perhaps we can explore how this can translate to a work context. There’s no reason why we couldn’t support young people to become economically active by undertaking micro-portfolio working for several employers. This could be useful to both parties – financially and skills-wise. At a time where many employers are hesitant to commit to long-term recruitment, this offers a way for young people to earn, learn and build their experience of work.

Digital technology can help reduce the costs of young people getting into work. For example, it allows remote working, avoiding travel costs for the young person, and office costs for the employer. It is also a cheap and speedy way of connecting with the global marketplace.

For the digitally literate young person, there is also the opportunity to link them to ‘virtually’ to mentors. Mentoring is mentioned positively in the Acevo report but online mentoring goes one step further in terms of convenience and widening participation.

However, we also need to support those young people who are not online, and, consequently, are cut off from a large number of job opportunities. So many jobs are advertised online and accept only online applications. Research from the Oxford Internet Institute published last year found that 10 per cent of young people between 17 and 19 stopped using the internet even though they had previously done so. We are currently investigating why this might be to find out the best ways of breaking down barriers to using digital technologies – and improving young people’s chances of finding work.

As with youth unemployment in general, there will be many different causes for lapsing from internet use. Many different strategies are needed to support young people. This starts with recognising that there are different education/progression paths which are suitable to support young people to be active in their communities and the economy.  

We need to review what we mean by employment and how that works. If someone can support themselves by selling imaginary swords to fellow gamers, let’s cheer them on, rather than trying to focus on traditional routes to a ‘proper job’.


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