Youth unemployment: could tech help?

If the government is serious about getting young people into employment, education or training, it needs to think much bigger.


This week the Cabinet Office ran an all-day ‘Job Hack’ hackathon aimed at solving a long-term, intractable social issue: young people not in education, employment or training – dubbed ‘NEETS’.

About 15 percent of 16 to 24 year olds in the UK are NEETS – for a vast, complex web of reasons, including roles as carers, childcare arrangements, disabilities and criminal records.

About 15 percent of 16 to 24 year olds in the UK are NEETS © Flickr/Cabinet Office
About 15 percent of 16 to 24 year olds in the UK are NEETS © Flickr/Cabinet Office

Can a hackathon solve youth unemployment? The answer is no, obviously not. But could tech and digital tools help make life a bit easier for people looking for work? Definitely.

The Cabinet Office managed to pull together a diverse group of people for the event, including government officials, developers, designers, career advisors and (no doubt carefully selected) young people.

They were given a range of existing datasets– including employment statistics, job vacancies, earning outcomes and apprenticeship vacancies, and asked to design applications or solutions, which will then be presented to Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock (pictured, on the day).

There was a decent turnout at the event and the participants seemed genuinely enthused by the idea of helping to solve such a difficult social issue. Their understanding and empathy for jobseekers’ experiences and how they interact with government services was impressive.

One app developed by Francis Irving, CEO of ScraperWiki, rates job listings by how helpful they are for jobseekers – whether they include salary, location and whether the role is full or part time, for example.

This could be used by the government to encourage recruiters and employers to advertise all job adverts in the same format. This would make it easier and more consistent for those looking for work online, something officials are actively working on now, he said.

This will help solve a real problem: research by the Citizens Advice Bureau found a pitiful 12 percent of online ads had all the information recommended, such as the employer, location, hours, salary and so on.

This wastes jobseekers’ time and makes it harder for them to find suitable jobs so anything to help fix the issue would be a good step forward.

Other ideas presented included apps to connect young people with mentors, analysis of ‘The Student Room’ website to identify user needs, an app to help map career paths and an app to identify local apprenticeship opportunities nearby.

Most of them seem worthwhile, so we can only hope the government continues to back this work and it doesn’t meet the fate that so often befalls hackathons – that they become a one-off event with no real impact.

However developers warned that their ability to make apps in this area is restricted by a lack of access to data – a common gripe.

“The release of data is getting blocked in some departments, we have national not regional datasets, and some are released every two years, not in real time,” one told ComputerworldUK.

And, if they are serious about addressing the issue of long-term youth unemployment, the government will have to think much bigger.

Fantastic though tech and web tools undoubtedly are, they are not a silver bullet and there are problems they can’t solve on their own. Most of the issues around NEETs are complex and structural – knock-on effects of government policy, economics and demographic trends.

It’s not to say that digital tools can’t help – but if the government is serious about helping NEETs, it needs to examine the vast range of policies that affect them: policies on welfare and education, issues of crime, policing and our outdated drug laws, to name just a handful.

And that’s before you even get onto the government’s commitment to proper, in-depth digital transformation across Whitehall – which could make a huge impact on all of us and save billions, but seems unlikely to get the funding it needs from George Osborne in his autumn statement next month.

Unless the government vastly ramps up its ambition, tech and digital tools will only ever help to ease the situation, rather than achieve any truly transformative potential.     

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