Skill Up Step Up: How jobs keep young people out of gangs

Charity bosses who divert young people from gangs and county line drug networks have backed our campaign to give youths vital wrap-around support to skill up and find meaningful employment – so proving the adage that ‘nothing stops a bullet like a job’.

Junior Smart, founder of the SOS Gangs Project run by St Giles Trust and a former gang leader himself, called our campaign “a brilliant route” to helping marginalised young people escape a life of violence and crime and prepare to enter into meaningful employment. And Sayce Holmes-Lewis founder and CEO of youth mentoring group Mentivity, said our £1m campaign in partnership with Barclays LifeSkills was “important” at this time of high youth unemployment, with many young people “desperate” to lift themselves out of negative environments.

Mr Smart, who experienced drug dealing and violence as a teenager and was subsequently sentenced to 12 years in prison, has a personal understanding of the factors driving young people into crime. He said that poverty and lack of proper support was holding young people back from reaching their potential and gaining employment.

Mr Smart added: “I have never worked with a young person who has said, ‘I want to be a gang member or run county lines’. I’ve worked with young people who have told me they can put food on the table through drug dealing. The youth clubs have been cut. So where do young people congregate? If they’re not in youth clubs, they’re on the streets or in someone’s house or online.” Mr Smart added that our campaign to upskill unemployed youth and get them into work will provide youngsters with more sustainable jobs and help them form their identity.

Junior Smart, founder of the St Giles Trust SOS Project that diverts young people from crime

((St Giles Trust/PA))

Brian (not his real name), 16, from London, was referred to Mr Smart’s SOS Project due to robbery and assault charges and his links to gangs. He called our campaign an “amazing opportunity” to help young people pursue their passions. He said: “When you’re not employed, you have to find money another way and you end up on the street doing crime.” Brian now aims to turn his life around through the SOS Project.

Mr Holmes-Lewis, 39, said the impact of poverty and lack of support in the education system left young people “unable to dream” with many forced to pursue a life of crime out of desperation. He said that raised youth unemployment (more than one in five youths in London are unemployed) and rising crime (last year a record 30 teenagers were murdered in the capital) often go hand in hand. “Some young people are thinking, I need to make money so I can put food on the table. They don’t see a future. When you don’t see a future and you feel like there’s no way out, then you’re going to do whatever you have to do to survive.”

He added that county line gang bosses see vulnerable unemployed young people as grooming targets and lure them into selling drugs in coastal towns and cities by offering them the prospect of making thousands of pounds a month. He lamented that removing young people from this lifestyle once they begin making large sums can be difficult. “I once had a 10-year-old mentee making £2,000 a month from county lines. What can I tell him? Stop doing that and start studying? He was paying his mum’s rent at 10-years-old. It was difficult to deter him because of the life changing sums of money involved.”

Mr Holmes-Lewis said our campaign deserved praise for being part of the long term solution to support marginalised youth to bring about their success. “We have to help young people find their passions – they then use that passion as fuel to get to where they need in a positive way.”

Our campaign in a nutshell

What are we doing? We have launched Skill Up Step Up, a £1m initiative in partnership with Barclays LifeSkills to upskill unemployed and disadvantaged young Londoners so they can be “work ready” and step up into sustainable jobs or apprenticeships.

Why are we doing this? Youth unemployment in London has soared by 55 per cent to 105,000 since the start of the pandemic, meaning that 21 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds are jobless at a time of record job vacancies of 1.17 million countrywide. This mismatch, caused largely by an employability skills and experience gap, is leading to wasted lives and billions of pounds of lost productivity for our economy.

How will it work? The £1m from Barclays will provide grant funding over two years for up to five outstanding, handpicked charities that provide disadvantaged jobless young Londoners with employability skills and wrap-around care to get them into the labour market and transform their lives. The charity partners we have announced so far are:

1. Springboard: they will support young people into jobs in the hospitality industry (hotels, restaurants, bars, leisure and tourism) via a three- to six-week programme that includes one-to-one mentoring, soft skills and employability development (confidence, work attitude, CV building, interview practice and time management), practical industry and hard skills training, including food safety and customer service, as well as access to work experience placements.

2. City Gateway: they will get young people work ready with a 12-week employability programme, including digital skills, a work placement, CV and interview skills and a dedicated one-to-one coach, extending to up to 20 weeks if they need English and/or maths qualifications, enabling them to gain entry level positions including apprenticeships in a wide range of sectors, including finance, digital media, marketing, retail, property and IT.

More partner charities will be announced in due course.

How can the young and jobless skill up? If you are aged 16-24 and want to upskill towards a job in hospitality, contact Springboard here.

If you want to upskill towards a job in any other sector, contact City Gateway here.

For tools, tips and learning resources visit

How can employers step up? We want companies – large, medium and small – to step up to the plate with a pledge to employ one or more trainees in a job or apprenticeship. They could work in your IT, customer service, human resources, marketing or sales departments, or any department with entry level positions. You will be provided with a shortlist of suitable candidates to interview. To get the ball rolling, contact the London Community Foundation, who are managing the process on:

How can readers help? The more money we raise, the more young people we can skill up. To donate, click here


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