Catching the Tide | New directions for youth NEET policy after COVID-19

By Rowan Light September 21, 2020

Young New Zealanders face compounding challenges in their transition to work in 2020. Young people globally are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn—precisely at a time when youth need to take their first steps on the pathway to full, stable employment. New Zealand faces the risk of a “lockdown generation,” with long-term social and economic costs.1

The pandemic is also magnifying generational trends of increasingly limited employment for young people. Stories that older New Zealanders like to tell of leaving school early to work in the local post office or butchery are a far cry from young people’s reality today. Pathways to work are more limited, competitive, and fragmentary.


Catching the Tide

New directions for youth NEET policy after COVID-19


The employment crisis will especially impact those young people already trapped in patterns of Not in Employment, Education, or Training (NEET). Since 2014, between 70,000 to 90,000 young New Zealanders have been NEET in a given year.2 Of those, around 10 percent are long-term NEET—having been disengaged for six months or longer.3 In June 2020 alone, the proportion of people aged 15–24 years who were NEET increased by 2 percent.4

Māori and Pasifika youth are over-represented in these NEET statistics, with clusters in regional and urban centers. COVID-19 risks compounding established patterns of social inequality.

Bringing long-term NEETs into pathways of work is a way to jump-start productivity. While most workers disrupted by the lockdown will find their way back into fulltime work, tapping into a source of disengaged youth, especially in regional centres, will pay dividends for the economy. Moreover, youth unemployment is not just about individuals: helping young people to engage with the world of work means supporting the whānau and communities around them—something increasingly important with New Zealand’s ageing population.

Connecting young people to work is only one part of the challenge. The Government’s current focus on creating jobs won’t help many youth in long-term patterns of NEET. Young New Zealanders lack a clear “map” to navigate these complex transitions, and are often facing long-term, multi-generational social and financial deprivation; they need sustained support to become “work ready.”

Becoming “work ready” means changing the narrative of youth employment in New Zealand society. Whānau and communities are often best placed to find local, long-term solutions, providing young people with relationships of trust and support on future pathways of success, not just the period of a government programme. Government policy needs to help resource and support communities to achieve these quality outcomes.

Overall, we need to focus on the pastoral care of youth entering—or returning to—the workforce. Pastoral care provides the crucial bridge for young people entrenched in patterns of NEET, to overcome shortcomings in current government approaches, and achieve long-term employment outcomes.

Current strategies

Current government strategies and programmes are siloed and individualised, with a heavy focus on prevention and training rather than long-term work outcomes. Results have been haphazard and underwhelming. This paper, instead, supports calls for “fewer, longer, and deeper interventions” that help those experiencing long-term NEET status or are at-risk of doing so.

The most recent policy focus has been on school leavers rather than long-term unemployed youth ages 20-24 who remain largely detached from the labour market. The fact that this group persists after five or six years after school illustrates how little government programmes change longer-term outcomes for many young people. Long-term NEETs are burnt out by the system, making them less likely to take necessary risks to upskill and pursue employment.

Despite being the worst affected by the economic downturn, young people have benefited least from the subsequent recovery package. A general focus on training, resourcing, and job creation will be ineffective without youth-specific strategies that empower community networks to support youth into work.

The expansion of He Poutama Rangitahi under the 2020 Budget was hopeful, but lacked indications of the capability or quality of the spending. In this, the paper seeks to tautoko the work of NGOs such as Whāngarei Youth Space.

We recommend complementing the government’s design of policy around long-term youth unemployment.

This entails a new infrastructure of work, one that focuses on pathways that prepare young people to be work ready, guided by pastoral care, and leveraged through community partnerships.

Key Recommendations

  1. Change the narrative of youth unemployment in New Zealand
    • Make long-term unemployed young people an explicit focus in all government COVID-19 recovery projects;
    • Commit to smaller cohorts of participants with more quality support;
    • Measure outcomes over time that take into account employment, personal development, and relational impacts;
    • Promote stories of youth unemployment in terms of aspiration and hope, rather than dependency and failure; and
    • Bring the intergenerational relationships of a young person’s life into the discussion and design of work pathways. 2. Centre community-based models in government NEET interventions
  2. Create a framework for community-led programmes that can be used in diverse contexts;
    • Promote the success of initiatives such as WYS START; and
    • Link “shovel ready” projects to community-based partnerships.
  3. Fund more pastoral care work through He Poutama Rangatahi
    • Establish funding avenues for pastoral “navigators,” distributed through local councils and embedded in community-led programmes;
    • Focus care on overcoming barriers, translating workplace expectations and culture, navigating recruitment processes, and personal development;
    • Amend MPTT charters to make pastoral care for learners in work experience a prerequisite to funding; and
    • Have pastoral care as part of the measurement of outcomes and success indicators.
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