How to give excluded young people a sporting chance in life?

Dr Tracey Leghorn
by Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Business Services Officer | SUEZ recycling and recovery UK
It is over a decade since the term NEET entered the mainstream. Following the financial crash in 2008, the number of young people not in education, employment or training rose sharply, and peaked in July-September 2011. Then, 16.9% of 16-24-year-olds were NEET – or 1.25 million people.

Policymakers, politicians and the media were, rightly, exercised at this loss of human capital and the implications for so many young lives. Thankfully, the NEET numbers have been falling since then, though the coronavirus pandemic halted that trend as lockdowns hit youth employment harder.

This may have just been a blip. The latest figures I can find, for January-March 2021, show 728,000 people in this group – 10.6% of 16-24-year-olds. This was a fall of 69,000 from the previous quarter and 54,000 fewer than the year before.

Overall, 44% of these young people were unemployed, while the remaining 56% were not working, seeking or available for work (economically inactive). This doesn’t seem right in an economy hampered by low productivity, and with many sectors struggling with labour and skills shortages. When you think of the personal consequences and wasted opportunities behind these statistics it seems even more wrong-headed and unjust.

Studies have shown that time spent as a NEET can have a detrimental effect on physical and mental health. And that impact can be prolonged through long-term unemployment, low wages, or low quality of work later on in life. People and society pay the price of this waste of human talent and potential.

As a company, we have joined in Government initiatives to tackle the NEET problem, such as the Kickstart scheme and apprenticeships levy. We have also launched various of our own schemes and joined forces with business and other groups trying to make a difference.

SUEZ recycling and recovery UK in the South East has now teamed up with The Harlequins Foundation, the Clubs charitable arm to launch a new employability programme to support young NEET people. Our Resourcing Manager Claire Townsend – who is focussing our efforts to promote social mobility – is leading this initiative. The aim is to help young people develop their personal and social skills, improve their job prospects, and move towards sustained education, training or employment.

Each year, for the next two years, we will support four groups of young people who will spend four weeks on the programme. The first week is at The Stoop – the rugby stadium across the road from Twickenham in London – where the group works with tutors from The Harlequins Foundation.

Then there is a two-week rotation with SUEZ around the different departments that make up the business. During this time they get a taste of various operations and activities from weighbridges to transport, and recycling to administration through job shadowing. Back at The Stoop for the final week, they have time to process everything they’ve learnt and – if they want to – prepare for a guaranteed job interview with our company. Three young people were previously offered permanent employment with SUEZ as a direct result of this, and there are several opportunities on offer at SUEZ this year for the next round of cohorts if they wish to pursue careers with the company following their work experience.

The Harlequins Foundation element focusses on developing Essential Skills such as listening, communicating, staying positive and aiming high. It provides positive role models ready to listen to these young people, treating them with respect and supporting them through tough times.

Young people can sign up to this new programme in a number of ways, either by referral from the Local Authority, through the job centre or directly through The Harlequins Foundation.

In addition to this employability programme, The Harlequins Foundation also delivers an education programme called Hitz that works with disengaged and socially excluded young people who have struggled in mainstream education. The team at The Foundation work with these young people, who study at The Stoop (home of Harlequins), to gain qualifications such as Maths, English and Sports Coaching. Part of this programme now includes all students taking part in the rotation at SUEZ, giving them real life work experience and an opportunity to develop their Essential Skills.

The Harlequins Foundation can point to many young people who have turned their lives around. Omar Mohammed is one example. After a hesitant start, he overcame his reluctance to study and developed strong relationships with the team. During a work placement with SUEZ, Omar’s curiosity and engagement became increasingly apparent.

Commenting on this work experience Omar says: ‘‘I found the experience interesting and an excellent opportunity to put the experience on my CV and LinkedIn. I was able to build relationships with the Regional Manager who gave me good advice on the best roles for me in the future.’’

Tom Jones, our Regional Manager, was also impressed, and we were happy to offer Omar a job as a site operative. Having lost all interest in education prior to enrolling on the Hitz programme, Omar is working towards BTEC qualifications in Sport and Active Leisure as well as Maths and English GCSEs. And for the first time, he is also pondering going to university as well as a new job with SUEZ and the associated training and development opportunities.

Omar’s outlook is broader as well as brighter, because he realised that he had the capacity to learn, train and/or work in a company that is passionate about the environment and community, and about developing their people.

We are thrilled about our ongoing partnerships with The Harlequins Foundation and look forward to working with them to help more young people on their path to fulfilling careers and lives.