Three in five employers have cancelled work experience because of Covid-19, research reveals

Experts warn the talent pipeline could ‘start to stall’ as half of organisations anticipate offering fewer opportunities for young people in the next year

More than three in five employers that offer work experience and internships have cancelled placements because of the coronavirus pandemic, research has found.

A YouGov poll of 1,005 HR decision makers in British businesses, conducted as part of the Sutton Trust’s latest Covid-19 impact brief, found 61 per cent of employers have cancelled some or all of their work experience and internship placements, including half (49 per cent) of SMEs and almost a third (29 per cent) of larger employers.

The survey also found that almost half (48 per cent) of these employers expected there would be fewer work experience opportunities in their businesses over the next year, while 39 per cent of graduate employers reported they were likely to hire fewer or no graduates at all over the same time period.

The Sutton Trust said employers should consider moving work experience, internships, outreach and recruitment online, making these programmes accessible to young people from a range of geographical backgrounds. It added that in the long term, missed education from school closures and the cancellation of exams would disproportionately affect disadvantaged students: something businesses should take into account when recruiting.

While almost a quarter (23 per cent) of employers said the pandemic would make it more difficult for them to be proactive about social mobility in the workplace, half (49 per cent) said it would have no impact. Just 11 per cent said social mobility and socioeconomic diversity would be less of a priority in the two years after the pandemic.

Commenting on the report, Robin Simmons, professor of education at the University of Huddersfield, cautioned that youth employment would be substantially affected by the pandemic. “The first thing employers do is stop recruiting, before making redundancies,” he said. “You get downward pressure because young graduates take jobs young people would have taken, so even entry-level jobs are hit.”

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In contrast, adult employment tended to bounce back more quickly in an economic downturn, Simmons pointed out, because adult workers tended to take roles that would have previously been filled by a young person. “Any jobs are taken by older workers, who trade down into jobs that ordinarily they wouldn’t be entering in normal economic times,” he said.

Lizzie Crowley, skills adviser at the CIPD, agreed that the report's findings on youth employment were particularly concerning. “We know the long-term impacts of youth unemployment on young people in terms of wage and employment opportunities are particularly bad and they suffer from long-term scarring as a result of a stalled start.

“The difficulties facing employers is considerable. The government has announced a number of measures to try to kickstart job creation for young people, but a lot of that depends on the future shape of the pandemic, and the economic impact of it.” 

Earlier this month the government announced an £8bn 'kickstart' scheme subsidising youth employment; however, Simmons argued the scheme did not provide “meaningful work or coherent framing”. Instead, he called for the creation of a strategic body to deal with youth unemployment by looking at skills supply and demand. “Young people have never been better qualified than they are now – most are overqualified and underemployed,” said Simmons.

Kirstie Donnelly, chief executive of City & Guilds Group, warned the coronavirus crisis risked creating “a lost generation of young people”, with nearly one million additional young people expected to be out of work by the end of the year. “A lack of work experience opportunities means that, in addition to university graduates struggling to get their foot in the door, many others will be unable to complete workplace-based qualifications or gain the workplace skills that employers need,” she said.

“As talent pipelines start to stall, skills gaps will only grow, and that’s why it’s vital that the government and employers act now to fund practical training solutions that will truly help young people get into work.” 

Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust, said employers needed to start moving their internships and work experience placements online to ensure that all young people have an opportunity to enter the labour market. “It is crystal clear that young people will bear the brunt for years to come of the massive downturn caused by Covid-19 – and young people with poorer backgrounds will be most affected,” he said.

This was echoed by Sue Maguire, honorary professor at the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath, who warned that younger people who were socially disadvantaged or with the fewest qualifications would be most at risk of long-term social and economic exclusion. “The net effect [of the economic downturn] will be a youth labour market queue, with young people from advantaged backgrounds and, in particular, those who attended ‘top’ universities being at the front,” she said.