Comment: ‘Work experience before benefits’ pilot could backfire

A pilot scheme has been launched in half of London's boroughs requiring those who are out-of-work to take on a compulsory 13-week work experience scheme before qualifying for benefits…

By Charlotte Hill

From research that we've been involved with we know that youth unemployment is the biggest single issue facing young people today. A recent study found that over half of 16- to 24-year-olds would consider moving abroad to find work. Therefore we welcome any initiative that seeks to stop young people falling into that growing group classified as 'NEET' – not in education, employment or training. After all what could be more damaging to your self-esteem or life chances than to go straight from full-time education and onto benefits?

So despite, the mandatory nature of this plan, in tough economic times I understand the rationale behind it. However there are some simple but really important issues that need to be bottomed out before the proposal deserves our wholehearted backing.

Firstly it is vital to ensure that these work experience opportunities are authentic – a genuine chance for participants to gain a real understanding of the world of work and develop skills that will make finding a full time job more straightforward.

Employers taking part must therefore be properly equipped to deal with the needs of young people and have the resources to support as them as they learn while they are 'working'. If this kind of framework is not in place critics will be justified in viewing this scheme as another chance for employers to take advantage of  cheap labour who they have little reason to feel responsibility for. This would of course be damaging for all involved as the coalition found out when creating its previous, much maligned work experience programme.

It would also make sense for the opportunities that this initiative is creating to be based in business areas where we can expect some kind of growth, say in the digital sector. Even though some skills are transferable, it would seem frustrating for young people to gain experience in an area where there are unlikely to be any full-time jobs to pursue once the 13 weeks on this programme have elapsed.

I discussed the principle of benefits being withheld from people not prepared to take part with our 20 year-old apprentice Lorelle who works in our London office. The first thing she asked was: will there be any financial support to cover the costs of travel and subsistence that taking part in this programme would incur? This is not because she'd be trying to scrounge off the state but because her family, like many families, simply doesn't have the money to support her through for three months without bringing in any income. Would Chris Grayling class this as not taking part "without good reason" and withhold benefits as a consequence? Surely there must be provision for this kind of situation or we will simply be penalising those who are most in need.

At UK Youth we aim to support young people to realise their potential and encourage them to consider taking an active part in their communities. Through our work we know that the image of an 18-year-old happy to live fraudulently off the state is erroneous. The vast majority of 18- to 24-year-olds simply want to find work that stimulates them and offers scope to develop. Ideally it will pay them enough to enjoy life a little, too.

If this initiative is properly administered and facilitates the transition from study to career-path then we applaud it. If, however, it simply turns out to be a means of denying young people, at a time when they are in desperate need of ideas and incentives, it will backfire on everyone – the employers, the government and, most crucially, young people themselves.

Charlotte Hill is chief executive of UK Youth

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.