How Key Workers can help young people progress towards work

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This blog draws on work undertaken as part of the Big Lottery Fund Talent Match Evaluation and Learning Contract. The National Evaluation is led by CRESR, Sheffield Hallam University and the research on which this is based involves IER at the University of Warwick as well as City-REDI, University of Birmingham. The blog has been written by Sally-Anne Barnes from the IER, University of Warwick and City-REDI’s Anne Green in a personal capacity. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Big Lottery Fund.

Key workers are central to the Talent Match (TM) delivery model and provide intensive support over a long period. Previous research from the TM evaluation has confirmed the importance of one-to-one support, advice and guidance for young people.

The term ‘key worker’ is used to describe an individual providing one-to-one advice and support to a TM beneficiary. There are various terms used by partnerships to describe the key work role, including mentor, coach, support worker, adviser and advocate.

Case study research undertaken as part of the TM national evaluation explores the approaches, capacity and capabilities of TM key workers across the partnerships and in-depth in four TM partnership areas: Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire (D2N2); Greater Manchester; Lincolnshire; and Middlesbrough. The research draws on 22 interviews with partnership leads, key workers and young people at various stages of their TM journey.

We found different approaches to key working. TM partnerships started out with different approaches and delivery models and recruited key workers accordingly. Whilst some have emphasised a ‘youth work’ approach, others placed more onus on careers information, advice and guidance (IAG). However, all key workers spoke about adopting a person-centred approach:

“So, it’s flexibility, it’s being there to be a whole person-centred focus rather than having to try and fit someone in a box is really important.” (Key worker)

A lot of its holding hands, giving them that real one to one approach.” (Key worker)

In keeping with the ‘test and learn’ ethos, as TM evolved some partnerships have changed their approaches to meet the needs of young people. For some partnerships, there is an increasing emphasis on careers guidance support over time as young people move closer to the labour market as a result of TM support.

Key workers use a combination of experience, skills, local knowledge of services and the labour market as part of their role. A range of skills and attributes were identified as essential and necessary for those is in the key worker role:

  • communication skills
  • empathy and compassion
  • experience of working with young people
  • patience and
  • resilience (including the capacity to mentally manage difficult situations).

One key worker spoke of their attributes of empathy and nurturing as essential to their role and part of building a relationship with a young person:

So, I think it’s very important to have my kind of characteristics where you build up a friendship, build a relationship first and then get onto the nitty gritty, this is what we should be doing, can we push you a little bit further.” (Key worker)

The role of the key worker and their open and flexible approach helps young people to develop emotionally, personally and socially to ensure they are ready to progress into the labour market. This is in-line with a youth work approach which provides a strong foundation for a supportive relationship to develop. As the TM initiative has developed the need for a careers guidance approach has been recognised to support young people in the next part of their journey into the labour market. One partnership lead highlighted the need for key workers to focus on employability as well as the relationship building more typical of youth work:

I think youth work is primarily about engagement and constant contact and interaction and knowing how to get that person out of wherever it is they are and come and meet them, so probably more engagement type things, whereas I think employability background does that to some degree […] but it’s far better in asking the right questions of the young person in terms of employability. If this was purely a welfare-based project, it was just about sorting out young people’s lives and problems, I think a youth working background would be much more valid but as I keep saying to the mentors and people on the team, this is effectively an employability programme.” (Partnership lead)

For those designing employability programmes, evidence from TM supports the need for a holistic approach taking into account the emotional and personal well-being, as well as personal development of a person.

Within the TM context, the holistic approach draws upon youth work and careers guidance approaches. The youth work approach creates an open and safe environment for a young person to start their journey to employment. Then drawing upon the practices of careers guidance, a young person can be supported in developing their knowledge and understanding of the labour market and the opportunities available to them. It is this combination of approaches that can offer support to address the often complex and multiple barriers some furthest from the labour market face.

As part of their everyday practice key workers need to draw upon multiple skills and ‘tools’, as well as knowledge of local labour markets, employers, learning opportunities and services.

This blog was written by Sally-Anne Barnes, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick, working with Anne Green, City-REDI, University of Birmingham and was originally posted on the Talent Match Website.

N.B. The key worker research and report were undertaken with Elaine Batty and Sarah Pearson from Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham

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