British youth count cost of Covid on their future

Alan Davies began this year where the country needed him most: working in a care home with elderly and vulnerable people. But as soon as the coronavirus pandemic struck in February his employers ended his apprenticeship and he was sent home.

“They said because I was only 17 I was vulnerable [to infection],” he said. “I have not found any work since then. I have been applying for 50 jobs a day.” 

Mr Davies, who struggled at school before securing the apprenticeship with the help of the Prince’s Trust, a youth charity, is now living in a two-bedroom house in Hemel Hempstead, a Hertfordshire town to the north of London, with his four siblings and mother. “Absolutely distraught” at being let go, he hopes to return to care home work, but in the meantime must rely on his mother for money. “I don’t like that. I am not normally the dependent one,” he said. 

As the Covid-19 crisis, and the prospect of a second wave, pushes the UK towards a sharp economic slowdown, Mr Davies is one of hundreds of thousands of young people facing an uncertain future. Although the health of the elderly is most at risk from coronavirus it is the young who are feeling the economic pain most sharply. 

Three months into the pandemic, one-third of employees aged 18-24 excluding students lost their jobs or were furloughed, according to the Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, compared with one in six prime-age adults. From May to July, the youth unemployment rate was 13.4 per cent — up from 11.4 per cent the previous year — compared to 4.1 per cent for the general population.

Alan Davies lost his apprenticeship in social care when the coronavirus pandemic hit

“Young people who don’t have a history of work or work experience really struggle to enter the labour market,” said Harry Quilter-Pinner, from the Institute for Public Policy Research. The think-tank expects there to be an additional 620,000 young people unemployed by the close of 2020, as constraints on hiring and investment hit. Estimates from the ONS for May to July show an estimated 1.4m people were unemployed in the UK.

“We find that they are disproportionately likely to struggle to get a job, or get a job but get locked into low-pay, low-skilled work,” added Mr Quilter-Pinner.

The types of restrictions imposed by the government during the pandemic have also dealt a blow. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, under-25s were two and a half times more likely than their older peers to work in sectors that were shut down by social distancing requirements, such as hospitality and events. These workers make up a large proportion of the estimated 3m people now on furlough, at high risk of unemployment when the scheme ends at the end of this month. 

With a summer internship at art fair organisers Masterpiece, final-year art and design student Amber Storm Wilson hoped for a career in galleries and events. But as soon as lockdown began the placement was cancelled. 

Amber Storm Wilson, a third-year student at Leeds university, is resigned to being less picky about job opportunities after she leaves college © Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

“It was kind of predictable,” Ms Wilson said. “What was lucky for me is I didn’t get my hopes up.”

She is now continuing with her final year at the University of Leeds, but is already reassessing her ambitions. “I think the longer corona lasts, the less picky I’ll get,” she said.

Callum Zorn-Singh, a third-year physics student at the University of Bristol, was also left disappointed this summer, after two internships in the civil service and teaching were cancelled. He is now waiting to hear whether he has been accepted to a graduate role, but the wait has been four times longer than in normal years. “There’s rumours circulating,” he said of anxiety among fellow applicants. “There’s clearly some big decision-making going on.”

Data from recruiter Cv-library showed advertised graduate roles fell 60 per cent in the first 6 months of the year — something that weighs heavily on Mr Zorn-Singh’s mind. “We know graduate programmes are competitive — and this year demand for each place is going to be so much higher,” he said. “It’s quite scary.”

Callum Zorn-Singh lost two internships over the summer as the programmes were cancelled © James Pittard

According to the Resolution Foundation, graduates can expect their pay two years after they leave university to be 8 per cent lower than it would have been before the pandemic. But the burden is not evenly distributed: the pay of those with A-levels or equivalent will fall by 6 per cent, while those with only GCSEs will fall 13 per cent.

The government has launched measures to try to alleviate the disproportionate burden on the young and low-skilled. The Kickstart Scheme, which began in September, funds employers to create jobs for 16-24 year olds, while prime minister Boris Johnson has also announced a “lifetime skills guarantee” offering adults without A-levels a free college place on an approved list of vocational courses. 

None of those interventions are likely to help Gemma Hirst. The 25-year-old, from Prudhoe in Northumberland, had gained a university degree, worked for five years at a clothing retail chain and been promoted to supervisor when lockdown struck. After months on furlough, the store she was working at shut down and she was subjected to an “X Factor” style selection process which culminated in a demotion: a two-hour shift, twice a week, as a sales assistant.

Gemma Hirst said she was trying to stay positive despite losing her job in retail

Ms Hirst has opted to make a bad situation into an opportunity. She refused the offer, took a £900 redundancy pay-off, and began work on her dream of a career in marketing, by volunteering on digital publications and writing a culture blog. 

Things are tough: on benefits for the first time, and living with her parents and brother who are all on furlough, she has made 276 job applications and received 10 responses. When rejected, she asks for feedback — and tries to stay positive.

“Somebody else had that extra edge or had more experience. I take that on board and try to improve,” she said. “Jobs are out there so you’ve got to be patient and look.”

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