The Youth Obligation isn't working

10 July 2019

Created by the government in 2017, the Youth Obligation is designed to provide intensive, personalised support to young jobseekers over a six month period. Participation in the Youth Obligation is a condition of receiving the unemployment element of Universal Credit.

Until now, there has been no research published into what the Youth Obligation has delivered for unemployed 18 to 21 year-olds and the UK economy. At the same time, the government has only started collecting impact data since January 2019.

The Youth Obligation isn’t working for all

New research conducted by Warwick University for Centrepoint has found that the government’s flagship employment scheme for 18 to 21 year-olds is failing some of the most vulnerable groups that it is meant to be supporting into work.

The research is based on interviews with Jobcentre Plus representatives and organisations providing advice and support for 18 to 21 year-olds, and longitudinal study in London and Manchester from April 2017 to January 2019 of young people - half of whom were participating in the Youth Obligation, and half of whom were not but were still claiming unemployment benefits due to the gradual roll out of Universal Credit.

The young people who took part in the research had complex needs such as a history of offending, drug or alcohol misuse, or an experience of homelessness.
The research finds that:

  • 1 in 5 of the young people who took part in the research did not realise they were even taking part in the Youth Obligation;
  • 40% of the young people who took part in the Youth Obligation left the programme as they were unable to continue because of problems including homelessness and poor mental health;
  • More than a third of participants were sanctioned more than once, leading to a reduction in their Universal Credit award.

Overall, the picture that emerges in the report is of a group who are not being offered sufficient flexibility by the programme to meet their specific needs. Young people are being rushed onto the programme when they are evidently not ready or able to benefit from it and are expected to remain on the programme despite significant difficulties – 18% of those surveyed were functionally illiterate and over half did not have 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C.

This results in young people who are most in need of support dropping out or receiving a sanction and so consequently losing access to any support and benefits they might have received through the programme. A year into the study 35% of those still engaged with the research were not working or claiming benefits having fallen completely out of the benefits system.

Finding work, but not always on the books

Of those young people still involved in the study after 12 months the report shows that some young people had found work, but generally at low wage levels which left them reliant on Universal Credit to top up their income:

  • 24% were engaged in some form of employment, however 44% of this group were engaged in informal cash in hand work;
  • Of those in formal employment, 44% were claiming Universal Credit to top up their wages;
  • The average annual employment income of all those in work (either formally or informally) was £6,000.

What needs to change?

The Youth Obligation should be an opportunity for young people to gain new skills and grow their confidence but the current system simply isn't working for everyone who needs it. But for many young people the Youth Obligation lacks the flexibility necessary to deal with young people who are homeless or are suffering poor mental health.
If the Youth Obligation is going to work to get all young people into work then we need a much better understanding of what works and a more holistic approach to the non-academic barriers to employment that vulnerable young people face.”
To achieve this outcome Centrepoint is calling for:

  • A national impact evaluation to examine whether the Youth Obligation has brought about change for those participating, what worked effectively, and for whom;
  • An overhaul of training for Jobcentre staff and the ‘explicit consent’ rules within Universal Credit to help work coaches and advocates work more closely with claimants to support them into work;
  • Improved communication with young people to ensure they know what support is available, what their responsibilities are, and what role other agencies can play in helping them into training and employment

Read the report

This research was funded by Centrepoint and Trust for London, in collaboration with Gaby Atfield and Anne E. Green of University of Warwick's Warwick Institute for Employment Research