Georgina George had a tough time at school and struggled for years afterwards to work out what she wanted to do with her life.
Then just before the pandemic hit, it all came together: she discovered a passion for aviation engineering and found a job in the sector that she loved. Shaking off the problems from her past, the 23-year-old began to forge ahead.
But then what would have been just a wobble in normal times threw her completely off course: the company she worked for went into liquidation and she was made redundant while on maternity leave.
Forced to move out of her home in West Sussex and into her in-laws’ house in an isolated village in Berkshire to save money during the pandemic, George could suddenly only see brick walls ahead of her.
“I want to work and be a good example to my daughter,” she says. “But because of the pandemic it seemed impossible. I sent out hundreds of CVs and spent days trawling the internet for jobs but I just couldn’t find anything in this part of the world. Within a few months of moving here, I’d sunk. I lost all my confidence, began suffering from anxiety, put on weight and stopped going out. It felt like it was all over.”
Then, by chance, George stumbled upon the Reach Up employability programme. Supported by UK Youth, it supports young people between the ages of 16 and 25 who are not in employment, education or training (Neet), or at risk of becoming Neet.
UK Youth is one of three charities supported by the Guardian and Observer 2020 appeal for disadvantaged young people hit by the Covid crisis. £1m has been raised so far, with the appeal still to run for another week.
It was a short, two-week course, but, George says, its eight modules – which included virtual volunteering support, mock interviews, social action planning and networking skills – have been transformational.
“I am a different person now with a whole new set of skills that make me totally employable,” she says, beaming, while bouncing baby Jessie on her knee.
Youth unemployment in Britain, which was at a record low of 5.5% before the pandemic, is on course to more than triple to the highest level since the early 1980s, hitting 17% among economically active 18- to 29-year-olds by late 2020. This is the same level as in 1984 under Margaret Thatcher’s government and will have a devastating impact on the employability, living standards and mental health of a generation of young adults.
This generation is, says Patrick Shaw-Brown, the director of national programmes at UK Youth, at risk of losing vital confidence in the abilities and aspirations they need to find employment, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
“Programmes provided through youth work, such as Reach Up, provide an opportunity for young people to learn the skills they need to get a job, understand where they can make the most of their talents and build the confidence and networks to pursue their goals,” he says.
“The relationship with a youth worker, sometimes the only trusted adult in a young person’s life, and the safe space created by the youth organisations are critical to reaching those most in need. These are elements that young people may not have found through other avenues such as careers advice at school or recruitment services.”
Work readiness programmes, when combined with the broader life support that youth workers can give to young people in difficult circumstances, can transform a young person’s prospects over as little as a few days or weeks, says Shaw-Brown. This not only empowers the young person, it also allows them to contribute to society over the course of a lifetime.
When Jamil Mungul came to another scheme supported by UK Youth, the Soapbox Youth Centre in Islington, north London, in 2017, he was depressed and close to dropping out of college. Sensing his technological talents, a youth worker, James Dellow, gradually encouraged Mungul to develop from Soapbox participant to volunteer, and finally to a paid youth worker.
Thanks to Dellow’s support, Mungul has developed and taught new coding programmes and techniques, as well as 3D design and virtual reality courses, to other isolated and deprived young people, sensitively tailoring his teaching techniques to each person’s specific issues and anxieties.
Dellow says Mungul is now a key part of Soapbox; someone they cannot do without. He returns the compliment, praising the organisation for helping him set up his own IT business.
“This is 21st-century youth work,” says Mungul. “And while I’m helping others, I’m also developing the skills to propel my own career opportunities and scope for success.”
Please donate to the Guardian and Observer appeal here
If you are a young person struggling with your mental health, advice and support is available on the YoungMinds website, including information about how to get help. If you are a young person in need of urgent support, contact the YoungMinds Crisis Messenger by texting YM to 85258. Young Minds’ dedicated helpline for parents can be called free on 0808 802 5544 from 9.30am to 4pm, Monday to Friday.