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Work experience, contacts and confidence needed to secure fulfilling employment, researchers find.

  • Employment and career development opportunities are becoming polarised.
  • Those with good educational or vocational qualifications are less likely to have difficulty accessing sustainable employment.
  • Employers increasingly look for work experience as evidence that a young person is ‘work-ready’ and a good fit for their business.
  • Even well-qualified young people without family connections can struggle to access good-quality work experience.
  • Access to good quality careers information and guidance is the key to a successful entry to the labour market
  • Zero-hours contracts are rarely a bridge into sustainable employment.

A new study led by the University of Warwick raises concerns that employment and career development opportunities for young people are becoming polarised between those with the resources to access secure, fulfilling employment and those on the path to precarious and unpredictable working lives with poor prospects.

handshakeThe report, Present tense, future imperfect? Young people’s pathways into work is published today and presents the findings of a three-year study examining the youth labour market in the Midlands from the perspectives of young people themselves, and their employers. The project was conducted by a team led by Professor Kate Purcell at the University’s Institute for Employment Research.

Commenting on the study, Professor Purcell said: “Our evidence leaves no doubt that that young people’s achievement and attitudes are related to earlier social and educational advantages and disadvantages; the family and community support and the quality of education available to them; and the quality of the careers guidance to which they had access.”

The researchers interviewed young people and their employers in and around the West and East Midlands, and discussed their findings with a range of youth labour market stakeholders. Employer case studies were drawn from seven sectors: health (the NHS); automotive manufacturing; food and drink manufacturing; the voluntary sector; creative industries; hospitality; and business-to-business services.

The study finds evidence that young people with solid educational and family backgrounds, with the contacts and confidence to seek out career opportunities, are highly likely to gain access to work in secure occupations with good conditions of employment and career development. By contrast, job-seekers without these advantages are increasingly found in low-skilled, low-paid jobs, very often on short-term contracts with no guaranteed hours and with few opportunities for progression.

Professor Purcell said: “There is a huge gap in our knowledge and understanding when it comes to how young people between 17 and 24 enter the job market, and about the role played by unpaid and insecure work. We wanted to explore whether the growing importance of internships and unpaid work is increasing social inequality.

“We decided to put the youth labour market in the Midlands under the microscope. Our report presents the voices of young people from Birmingham, Leicester, and Coventry. They share their experiences of trying to achieve sustainable careers, whether straight from school or college or after going to university.

“Our study shows the real importance of family contacts and social networks. Young people with access to strong networks are having more success at finding and keeping sustainable jobs. Having insider knowledge, mentors or contacts was often part of the explanation for successful access to work experience, and employers told us that work experience is becoming increasingly important to them when recruiting young workers. We also found evidence that cuts to local authority careers services have done real damage to the quality of advice available to young people at the start of their working lives.”

The report is published amidst the growth of the so-called ‘gig economy,’ where work is provided – but not guaranteed – to sub-contracted temporary or self-employed workers. It complements the recent review led by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, published in July. Good Work: the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices looked into the working conditions of flexible and agency workers within the ‘gig economy’ but did not specifically consider younger workers.

The research team found that employers took the challenge of recruiting and retaining the right young people seriously, but saw themselves as having very little power in their labour markets, even when they were large regional employers. Strategies adopted to hire suitable candidates included looking for applicants with work experience; relying on employment agencies to pre-screen candidates; and offering internships and work trials, which might be paid or unpaid. Employers wanted to see better co-ordination with schools and colleges to raise awareness of the different career opportunities available to young people in the region.

A high proportion of the young people who sought to enter the workforce straight from school or college reported a lack of well-structured, supportive advice, whether from their teachers, careers services or Jobcentres. While some individual advisors and teachers had given good information, the study found significant variation in the quality and timing of careers counselling. The researchers note that “stark differences” in parental support amplify the impact of uneven careers advice provision.

Private employment agencies are seen as a key route into work by non-graduates. While the flexibility of agency work was welcomed, disadvantages included the effort involved in maintaining a number of different online accounts, each offering a limited range of vacancies, and the frustration of being offered unsuitable jobs, such as work in a different city for someone with no private transport.

The study finds that for graduates and non-graduates alike, work experience facilitates access to employment. Young graduates were very aware of the importance of building a record of work experience for their CVs and most had enjoyed the benefit of access to high-quality careers advice through their universities, and university contacts with employers. Work experience, sandwich placements and internships often led to graduate jobs or at least to the opportunity to apply for such roles soon after graduation. Non-graduates also appreciated the value of work experience and many of the study participants actively sought out opportunities including unpaid work experience and temporary placements. However, unpaid work experience was difficult to access for young people without family support.

The report also contrasts the current labour market and the growth of the gig economy with the 1930s when casualization of employment, particularly among young men, was seen as an undesirable trend and government programmes were put in place to help young men and young women learn a trade.

28 September 2017


  • Professor Kate Purcell, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick
  • Professor Peter Elias, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick
  • Professor Anne Green, City REDI, Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham
  • Professor Phil Mizen, Dept of Sociology, University of Aston
  • Professor Melanie Simms, School of Business, University of Leicester
  • Professor Noel Whiteside, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick
  • Professor David Wilson, Open University Business School
  • Dr Arlene Robertson, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick
  • Dr Charleika Tzanakou, Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick


Other Research Team members:

  • Gaby Atfield, Research Fellow, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick
  • Matthew Cooper, Postgraduate student, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick
  • Sharon Chohan, Postgraduate student, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick


This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). ESRC is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.


For further information, contact:

Sheila Kiggins

Media Relations Manager

University of Warwick


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