Director for Wales at Learning and Work Institute

In all sorts of ways the pandemic has had a significant impact on young people. As well as the impact on their education and their health and well-being, the pandemic has dramatically reduced opportunities in the labour market.

A year on from the first lockdown, the number of young people claiming unemployment benefits in Wales had increased by more than 80%. This was the result of the disproportionate impact of the closing down of the economy on those sectors that employ the most young people, including in sectors such as hospitality, high street retail, and tourism. As these sectors begin to reopen in some form there will be more opportunities for young people, but there remains a real risk of a lasting, long-term impact on their future earnings, career progression, and well-being from prolonged periods of unemployment.

This week Llamau have launched their #myfirstjob campaign to highlight the importance of that first step into work and to encourage employers to look at the opportunities they could offer. My first job was a year of working 60-70 hours a week in a bar / nightclub in Weston-super-Mare in the mid-90s. It was long hours, split shifts three days a week, and sometimes starting at 10am and finishing at 2am. I remember one time being dragged across the bar by an angry customer after I told him that he’d had too much to drink already.

In my head the whole experience was like Tom Cruise in Cocktail. In reality it was more like the Nag’s Head, with the drinks never getting more complicated than a lager top or a Pernod and Black.

Despite all that it was a year that gave me some crucial life skills, including the ability to communicate with people of all ages, to work as part of a team, to support each other, to do different roles as required, and the value and reward that can come from hard work and commitment. I started to understand what was expected of me: to be on time, to be reliable, to be ready to work, and to be ready to learn.

I was lucky to have been given the opportunity at that time. I later graduated to work in the local Wetherspoons, where I had my first taste of the corporate culture of targets, promotions, margins, and mystery shoppers. It is fair to say that I have spent the last twenty-five years trying to avoid experiencing again the Wetherspoon culture I encountered back then.

As a result of the pandemic the chance of that first job will seem further away than ever for some young people. For those with the fewest skills or who are furthest from the labour market the journey into work may be the longest. The crucial test for the Welsh Government’s Youth Guarantee promised at the election in May (which pledged a guarantee offer of education, training, or work for 16-24 year olds) is how will it help those facing the biggest barriers.

Key to this will be ensuring young people have access to the advice and support they need. The Working Wales service run by Careers Wales is a great place to start and this is the first place young people should go to for impartial, high-quality advice. There are a range of options for young people, including traineeships, apprenticeships, or a return to learning, but knowing what is available and how you can access them is obviously a prerequisite.

The other important step is for employers to play their part. They can do this by taking part in government funded schemes to support young people and by being positive and proactive in recruiting those young with a diverse range of life experiences. This can bring new skills and perspectives to their workforce and offer insights and understandings you may have been missing. The next stage in our recovery from the pandemic is for Welsh employers to be part of a collective effort to help our young people start their career journey by being part of the new Youth Guarantee. By offering a traineeship, an apprenticeship, or being willing to offer entry level opportunities employers of all types will be playing an important part in rebuilding Wales after a year of genuine hardship for many people.

Your first job is less of a first rung on the ladder and more the first step on a climbing frame. The first job you take won’t define the career you go on to have but it can give you important skills for the future. Our challenge today is to ensure young people have the opportunity to embrace the chance of #myfirstjob. It is all of our responsibilities to help them to make that happen.