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What is needed to include vulnerable youths into the labour market?

| Kjetil Frøyland, researcher at the Work Research Institute (AFI), OsloMet

Norway's government is calling for a joint initiative for youth inclusion. A laudable initiative. But government ministers should also look at the underlying structures if their measures are to achieve more than papering over the cracks. Perhaps we need to think differently about how to combine education and work.

More and more people fall outside of the labour market. Some because of ill health. Others because of high competency demands or tough competition for jobs. Many despite of their desire to participate. It is particularly worrying that an increasing number of young people seem to struggle with finishing their education and finding work.

That is why Norway’s government has called for a dugnad for youth inclusion. Dugnad is when a  parties with a common interest come together, volunteering to accomplish a common goal. It is a laudable initiative which is easy to support. It says employers must join the team. Workplace training for young people with “holes in their CVs” must be linked to possible permanent jobs.

“We must focus more on results, rather than counting the number of measures,” says the Prime Minister according to Aftenposten (30 January 2018). This all sounds good, but is it good enough?

During my recent PhD work I met several early school leavers who ended up in a downwards spiral, who lost their networks and their confidence to be with other people. The most exposed are those with psychological challenges, ADHD, substance abuse, tough childhoods, physical handicaps or other health issues.

They are called ‘exposed youths’, ‘problem youths’, ‘NAVers’ – a lost generation? They stay up all night playing online games. They struggle with their motivation and psyche. Many lead isolated lives, eat unhealthy food, have few friends, have family issues and little hope for the future. They are experienced in this: achieving nothing.

They have more than holes in their CVs. They have holes in their very lives. And at school they learned this: You are not good enough. As a result, they no longer believe they are. And they do not know what it is that they want. Vulnerable youths, who lack experience in mastering things and who do not have safe people who care for them, do not always possess enough motivation to overcome the obstacles in life. Someone needs to walk that mile with them. It could be a friend, a youth worker, a NAV guide:

“She is my security, that is what is most important,” a young woman said about her helper. “That he has, like, pulled and pushed you all the way; You won’t give up today,” said another.

Employers are important. I agree with the government ministers here. A shop owner put it this way:

“From being withdrawn and shy in the beginning, they lift their heads after a while, look people in the eye, and become active participants in the work environment too. They go from being insecure to being secure. It is fantastic to witness, they perhaps do not realise it themselves, but we see an enormous difference.”  

But employers cannot solve this alone. Young people with complex experiences need support in the workplace. In order for work placement to be successful for this target group, you need  well-functioning support services which make sure you get “place and train” and not “place and pray”.

The Nordic welfare states are among the best in the world, yet it is still difficult to get all relevant authorities to pull together and deliver ‘seamless’ and ‘efficient’ support. Many who have tried will know this. One youth worker put it this way:

“The youths are not the problem. We’ll always get them onboard. It is more difficult with all the helpers who must come in and contribute…”.

Indeed, this challenge is so tricky that it has been called “a wicked problem”; something nearly impossible to solve. As a result, people with holes in their CVs often fall between two stools when approaching the support system. A dugnad is good, but will it get to the core of the challenges?

The sociologist C.W. Mills said something like this: If one in ten thousand is unemployed, we can treat it as an individual problem. But if a thousand in ten thousand people are unemployed, we can safely say we are facing a structural problem. If we apply that maths to how many students finish their upper secondary education, we see that nearly 3,000 out of 10,000 Norwegian youths leave school early, ending up with holes in their CVs instead. Are the young people themselves to blame?

The Norwegian welfare state has been constructed like a motorway for all. It leads us to upper secondary education and on to the good life. Those who finish, live a better life and put more back into the community. This has been shown through evidence-based research. There is no doubt that education is a good thing – and most do finish it.

The links between finishing school and a later career have been documented in several studies. But not everyone learns in the same way. The system is good enough for most people, but for those with extra needs it is not flexible enough. For some, this becomes the road to exclusion.

The need for unskilled labour at sea or in industry is not as great as it used to be. The armed forces also no longer represent ‘a second chance’ with a strict but welcoming structure for aimless young men. These days only those with no holes in the CVs get in. Has anyone looked into what effect that has?

A dugnad is great. I support it. But the government ministers also need to look at the underlying structures if the measures are to achieve more than papering over the cracks.

For young people, school is important. And it is possible to create workplace learning for the most exposed youths ­– who not only struggle in class but who also loose the fight for the internships. They “don’t function” some teachers say, and fear that these youths – if they are allowed in – can ruin the trust which the teacher so carefully has built up with the employer through years of delivering students who do “function”.

Perhaps we need to think differently about how to combine education and work. How? By giving the education system the competencies and resources needed to be able to use ordinary workplaces, so that the students who struggle the most are given roles and tasks which they can master, while they also bring value to the employer. This is how you build self-esteem and motivation. 

Being able to work alongside people who “have lived long enough to not have a need to stigmatise” – as one boss put it – but who find joy in helping a “young person adrift”. Straight talking, room to fail and learn, good follow-up, inclusive care. As well as good support from a guide, a youth worker or the school pastoral team.

Both the employer and the youths need following up. NAV should contribute here, like they used to do before someone invented the word ‘naving’ and reminded us that benefits could be exploited. They were right, but it meant a reduction in opportunities for some of the most vulnerable. Those who do not have money for restaurants or the cinema.

By lengthening the basic education period and making the education system more flexible, you could avoid labelling one in four youths as outsiders with holes in their CVs, simply because they did not finish their education in five years.

This is where government ministers need to focus their attention. A dugnad might well be helpful, But it must be more than a short-term knee-jerk reaction in order to “get done what we have been thinking of doing for a long time, but which nobody has had the energy to confront”. There are no shortcuts here. We need permanent solutions.

Kjetil Frøyland Kjetil Frøyland

is a researcher and PhD candidate at the Centre for Welfare and Labour Research at the Oslo Metropolitan University.

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