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How has the pandemic affected young people’s job skills?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 16 December 2021

Francis Green, Golo Henseke and Ingrid Schoon.

With skill shortages widely reported, you may be wondering what’s been happening to the learning of job skills among young people during Covid. It is already obvious that, following Brexit, we in Britain cannot rely as much on the skills of migrants – and this doesn’t just mean for picking apples or driving lorries. Across the board it is widely accepted that we are going to need to step up the training of Britain’s young people, our future workers for decades to come, if standards of living are to be sustained while the economy adjusts to post-Brexit realities and to climate change.

But hasn’t the pandemic put a large damper on hopes of an upturn in our skills? How could Britain’s youth get on with their education when so many schools were closed, and how could they train for careers when they could not even get to their workplace or training site?

We have been looking at the skills, employment status and health of Britain’s youth in this time of pandemic. It’s not easy to measure the loss of skills from Covid objectively, but the next best thing is to ask young people themselves to report to us what happened to them. We surveyed 3,000 young adults aged 16 to 25 in three stages between February and July earlier this year.* They told us, among other things, whether their job skills learning had worsened – or increased – a lot or a little, or perhaps had not been affected by Covid — a five point scale of responses.

We realised that their perceptions may not be the same as the objective reality, but this was our only option, and no-one had tried it so far. It turns out that the replies are plausible in many ways and very informative. Here are just some of the findings:**

  1. Some 47 percent of all the sample reported that Covid had worsened their learning of job skills – see the diagram. This includes 16 percent who said that their skills had worsened ‘a lot’. On the other hand, a perhaps surprising 17 percent told us that their learning of job skills had improved because of Covid.

The verdict that skills had worsened was much stronger among those in education – 61 percent – while only 8 percent reported improvement. By contrast, among those in employment, the response was more evenly balanced: 34 percent versus 27 percent. In short, those young people still in education have had a much tougher time of it, whether at school, further education college or university.

  1. Among those in education, a mitigating factor was if the young person had been doing some kind of work, whether an internship or some part-time job. This factor made only a moderate difference: we calculated that, other things being equal, someone with work experience had a 0.2 better score on the 1-5 scale compared with a similar person who had not done any work.
  2. Among those in employment, there were some who feared, quite reasonably, that training might suffer as a result of the pandemic. Although some young workers could switch to or expand their online training, others would be prevented from doing so by the practical need to be on site for training. We investigated by analysing the government’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey.

What happened was nothing like as drastic as envisaged. In the first lockdown the rate of participation in job-related education or training by those in work dipped sharply by 2.5 percentage points – as compared to its normal rate of about 20 percent. However, by the third quarter of 2020 it had recovered to what it would normally have been. Much more worrying, perhaps, is the long-term slow downward trend in young people’s exposure to training. But that has little to do with the Covid pandemic as such.

Another concern might have been that the young persons obliged to take up furlough (the Job Retention Scheme) would have had their training reduced. And indeed, we did find that a young person on furlough was 3 percentage points less likely to be doing training. However, this dampening effect on skills was countered by young people on furlough who did undertake training spending a lot more time on it – we calculate 22 hours more over a four-week period. Clearly they were keeping busy!

These two factors balance out to suggest that being on furlough had no substantive effect on the total time spent on training in the young working population.

Using our own survey, we then investigated how training made a difference to whether Covid had led to a loss of learning of job skills. We found that training which was leading to a qualification led to an improvement of 0.3 on the same 1 to 5 scale of learning loss. Not a huge mitigation, but nevertheless significant. It certainly helped lessen the blow of Covid, from the skills point of view.

Furlough made no difference to perceptions of learning loss. However, one group did suffer somewhat greater learning losses than others, namely those who were working in one of the ‘lockdown industries’ — the Hospitality, Food & Beverage and Retail sectors.

We also looked at whether Covid’s effects on job skills learning varied between the UK’s four nations. We found that England and Northern Ireland were the same, but the effects in Wales were 0.3 worse than in England on the 1 to 5 scale, and in Scotland 0.4 worse than in England. It is not clear why these differences occurred.

  1. Just over one in four of our sample of young people had been directly affected by Covid, in that a close family member or friend had become seriously ill or died. You might expect that this would also have an independent effect on their ability to learn job skills, interrupting their studies and perhaps lessening their motivation. If so, you would be right. We calculated that the effect was about 0.2 worse on the 1 to 5 scale.

We believe these findings should form part of the background when policy-makers are devising learning catch-up opportunities for young people. Even though it has problems, we would recommend our method of directly asking learners about their perceptions, in situations when no other means of measurement are available.

The evidenced-based advice of academic research is that recovery plans from educational emergences are often best left to local educational leaders on the ground, rather than dictated centrally in a one-size-fits-all strategy. In the same spirit, in July we asked the young people themselves what they thought was the best way to claw back some of the lost learning. Top of their list? More one-on-one or small group tutoring, and more laptops or tablets for those who can’t afford a personal computer. Other options which we know the majority of the general public favour – such as extending the school day and allowing pupils to repeat whole years — came some way down the young people’s rollcall of what they think would work best. Some food for thought.


*The survey was administered online for us by IPSOS and partners, using funds from a grant to UCL by UK Research and Innovation.

The full paper, “Perceived Effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Educational Progress and the Learning of Job Skills: New Evidence on Young Adults in the United Kingdom” is currently under peer review.



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