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City mattersCompetitiveness, cohesion and urban governance$

Martin Boddy and Michael Parkinson

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9781861344458

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781861344458.001.0001

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Youth employment, racialised gendering and school–work transitions

Youth employment, racialised gendering and school–work transitions

(p.323) Eighteen Youth employment, racialised gendering and school–work transitions
City matters

Sophie Bowlby

Sally Lloyd Evans

Clare Roche

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the school–work transitions of young men and women from different ethnic and class backgrounds in the two prosperous towns of Reading and Slough in England at the end of the 1990s. It examines how young people's ideas of their own racialised and gendered identities affect their labour-market behaviour, and how racialised and gendered ideas held by employers about young people influence their employability. The chapter describes the interconnected phases in the transition from school to paid work that most young people pass through between sixteen and twenty-five years of age.

Keywords:   school–work transitions, young people, Reading, Slough, England, labour-market behaviour, employability

Since the 1980s, government policy has aimed to increase the participation of young people in education and training, in parallel with the withdrawal of welfare support to those not in education and training or employment. This trend has continued under New Labour. Education, training and integration of young people into the world of work have been central to policies addressing social exclusion and social cohesion with high-profile programmes, such as the New Deal, helping young people combine paid work with education and training (DfEE, 2001). The expansion of places in further and higher education and encouragement to stay on into the sixth form means that less than 10% of young people now enter the labour market full-time at 16. More than 30% of all 18 year olds now participate in higher education and the aim is to increase this to 50%. These policy transformations are bound up with major changes in the structure of the UK youth labour market, which has become increasingly part-time, casualised and driven in most localities by the growth of urban service economies (Roberts, 1995; McDowell, 2002). Not surprisingly, with social exclusion high on the agenda, policy research has tended to focus on disadvantaged and socially excluded youth in depressed urban economies (Armstrong, 1997; Williamson, 1997, 1998; Johnston et al, 2000). A focus on gender, ethnicity and discrimination and on inadequate demand for labour have been central to analyses of the multifaceted problems that groups of excluded youth face in such depressed labour markets (Britton et al, 2002).

Less attention has been paid to understanding the school and labour market experiences of more ‘included’ or ‘ordinary’ youth from different ethnic and class backgrounds in localities that are seen to be ‘on the up’. How does the policy environment work for these young people? In such buoyant labour markets, do problems of racial and gender inequality in employment become insignificant? Do such labour markets offer all young people a realistic chance of secure and adequately paid employment?

This chapter explores the school–work transitions of young men and women, aged 16–25, from different ethnic and class backgrounds in the two prosperous (p.324) towns of Reading and Slough at the end of the 1990s. First, here we discuss the context of our research; second, we describe the research methods; third, we detail our findings; and, finally, we discuss the policy implications of our research.

Over the last 30 years, youth school–work trajectories have become longer, more complex and highly differentiated (McDonald, 1997). Furthermore, the shift to a service economy has changed the mix of skills demanded of young workers and the opportunities offered by employers. The skills demanded in service occupations are mainly the ‘soft’ skills of interpersonal communication, self-presentation and self-motivation that reflect a person’s social persona rather than the task-related skills that were dominant in a manufacturing economy (Duster, 1995). Moreover, urban labour markets present the young job seeker with increasingly polarised opportunities. There is a proliferation of part-time, low-paid and relatively insecure jobs in retail, finance and leisure alongside the growth of highly paid and highly skilled professional and managerial occupations. In prosperous towns like Reading and Slough, high house prices make it almost impossible for young people in their early 20s (except university entrants) to leave home without parental support. Thus, the processes of ‘growing up’ are being extended well into a young person’s mid-20s.

The combinations and timing of education, training and paid work during the school–work transition depend on factors including parental and school support, peer pressure, personal aspirations and the state of the local labour market (Bynner, 1991; Roberts et al, 1994; Morrow and Richards, 1996; Evans and Furlong, 1997; Furlong and Cartmel, 1997). Educational achievement is a key influence on the shape of the school–work transition. It is an important predictor of later economic success and is strongly linked to class background. For example, 80% of the children of professional and managerial workers go to university, but only 10% of the children of unskilled workers (Machin, 1998; Sparkes, 1999; Hobcraft, 2000; McDowell, 2002). Those who go to university or gain qualifications through further education may do part-time work alongside their education. This is seen as a useful experience of the world of work, but not as direct training for future employment. However, for those with poor or no qualifications, these early work experiences may simply provide a taste of the work they will continue to do full time.

In addition to their class – and, hence, education and qualifications – a young person’s gender and ethnicity may have an important influence on the school–work transition. First, the adult labour market is strongly differentiated by gender and ethnicity. Women have formed a high proportion of recruits entering the expanding service sector while male participation rates have fallen. Moreover, women have being doing better than men in secondary school exams, prompting fears of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ and alarm about the possibility that (some) young men may find themselves less employable than women. However, women’s increased participation in paid work has not yet resulted in their lifetime earnings matching those of men except for a tiny minority of successful middle-class women. Women form the overwhelming majority of (p.325) part-time workers and are found disproportionately in low-paid occupations. Women with children have lower lifetime earnings than women without children and men with children (Bradley, 1996; Walby, 1997; Cabinet Office, 2000).

There are also marked differences in the success of different ethnic groups in the labour market. In general, non-white groups have higher unemployment rates, lower earnings, and lower occupational achievements than their white counterparts. Although second-generation minority ethnic immigrants seem to do better than their parents, inequalities between them and their white peers persist even after allowance for differences in human capital and local economic prosperity. African-Caribbeans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis stand out as faring least well of all minority ethnic groups (Modood et al, 1997; Cabinet Office, 2002).

Second, in the past, paid work was not thought to be so important to British white young women as to British white young men; for women, marrying and having a family were seen as more important goals and markers of adulthood than financial independence. Women were not expected to become ‘breadwinners’. Such gendered expectations have been changing, although having a family is still regarded as a reason for many women, but not men, to reduce their involvement in the labour market. However, not all groups in Britain share in the view that gaining paid work is the main or even a desirable marker of adulthood for women. A common generalisation is that, among Pakistani Muslims in Britain, the primary role of women is to marry, have children and care for family members and that doing paid work may be frowned upon (Lloyd Evans and Bowlby, 1996, 2000). In contrast, a dominant stereotype of African-Caribbean women is that they expect and are expected to work full time for their working lifetime. These differences in expectations are reflected in respectively low and high rates of participation in paid work for all women of working age in both groups. One key question addressed in our research was whether these gendered and racialised differences in labour market behaviour and expectations are being challenged or are being reproduced in the youth labour markets of prosperous towns.

Our research is centred on the concept of ‘racialised gendering’ (Brah, 1994). The term refers to the way in which ideas of the characteristics of men and women from different ethnic groups come to be held within and impact on the labour market. Usually, several competing versions of racialised gender characteristics are in circulation, and are formulated, negotiated, articulated and spread through social networks in situations in which different groups have varying degrees of power and conflicting interests. Local differences in economic, political and community organisation may therefore influence these representations and understandings. We have addressed two interrelated questions:

  • (p.326) how do young people’s ideas of their own racialised and gendered identities affect their labour market behaviour as they move from full-time education into the world of paid work?

  • how can racialised and gendered ideas held by employers about young people influence their employability?

Researchers on youth transitions have suggested that the structure of education and training allows today’s youth to experiment with different combinations of education, training and paid work – a mix-and-match approach to the transition from school to work (MacDonald, 1997). There is said to be a ‘fragmentation of youth transitions’ (Furlong and Cartmel, 1997) that gives individual young people more choice and control over their futures. Some authors, however, criticise this view (Coles, 1995, 2000), arguing that it overemphasises young people’s ability to create individual paths to the labour market. Instead, they suggest that many young people are increasingly constrained by a casualised and insecure labour market that no longer guarantees a job for life or a ‘living wage’. They argue that the growth of mass further education and higher education, decreased welfare support for young people, the rise in youth training schemes and virtual collapse of apprenticeships and other trainee roles has led to an extended and more insecure youth transition for less educated men and women. Our evidence suggests that the second view is more persuasive; that is, young people’s choices are indeed structured and constrained, although individuals do have some power to map out different paths to full-time paid work.

In the next section, we briefly describe our research. We then examine three overlapping, interconnected phases in the transition from school to paid work that most young people pass through between 16 and 25 years of age in the process of potential integration into the full-time labour market:

  • Imagining careers. In childhood and adolescence, young people start to build up ideas about possible paid work careers and to imagine what full-time involvement in the labour market will be like. Although thinking about work happens from a much earlier age, 16 years of age is a key formal turning point for young people as they are faced with options that shape their careers; thus one element of our research focused on the information about work and careers gained by 16 year olds.

  • Apprenticeships in employability. Engagement in education and training can now extend many years beyond secondary school. During this period, many young people combine ‘full-time’ or part-time study with regular part-time work that can involve substantial hours of employment. In the process, they experience the world of paid work and of agencies concerned with employment. This experience may improve their ‘employability’ and develop their ideas about the labour market.

  • (p.327) Finding long-term, full-time employment. Most young people seek long-term, full-time work, but some young people may never achieve reasonably secure or adequately paid employment.

In the following sections, we focus on the role that gender, ethnicity and class play in shaping the opportunities and barriers young people face during each of the three phases.

Our research

Interviews with young people and employers

We focused on young people aged 16–25 who had undertaken all their secondary education in Britain, and were from three ethnic groups: those of Pakistani and African-Caribbean background and white young people. The first two groups were selected because they have high levels of youth unemployment nationally. White young people were included in order to focus on the situation of the ethnically dominant group in Britain. We chose two localities for our study which differed in the size and mix of their minority ethnic populations but which both had buoyant economies: Reading and Slough. We conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with 230 young people. Table 18.1 gives details of the ethnic and gender characteristics of our respondents. We included some young people with Indian, other Asian, African and mixed race backgrounds, because we wished to examine the appropriateness of the ‘standard’ ethnic boundaries we were using to define our groups. Contacts with young people were made via schools, colleges, youth clubs, advice centres, hostels, careers centres as well as on the street.

We also undertook in-depth interviews with human resource managers from 23 firms in Slough and 20 in Reading to identify the explicit and implicit ideas about skills, ethnicity and gender embedded in employers’ recruitment

Table 18.1: Characteristics of the sample (%)







Ethnic background







Mixed Race




Other Asian




Total number in sample


(p.328) processes. Eighteen agencies were contacted during the research, including: agencies involved in youth and community work, the job centres and careers centres in both places, the Training and Enterprise Council (TEC), the Slough Foyer, agencies providing drop-in centres, the local Race Equality Councils and the Education-Business Partnerships.

The two towns

Slough and Reading provide somewhat different contexts for the construction and reconstruction of ideas about work and labour markets. The 1991 Census showed Reading’s socio-economic composition to be “a near microcosm of England’s as a whole … around seven percent of its population define themselves as Asian or black or belonging to some other minority ethnic group” (Hill, 1996, p 34). While the local authority and many of the public and voluntary agencies in the town are aware of and sensitive to issues of ethnicity and race, these issues are not at the forefront of most people’s consciousness. In contrast, the 1991 Census showed the minority ethnic population in Slough as 28% of the town’s population. Twenty-three per cent recorded themselves as from different Asian backgrounds (13% Indian, 9% Pakistani, 0.1% Bangladeshi and 1.3% other Asian), and 3% from African-Caribbean backgrounds; categories of ‘Other Black’ and African accounted for the remainder. Slough sees itself and is widely perceived as a multi-ethnic town, one in which issues of race are at the forefront of the political agenda. In both towns, the South Asian groups have a far higher proportion of young people than do other ethnic groups. In 10 years’ time, it is estimated that they will make up more than 30% of the 16-year-old population in Berkshire (BLSC, 2001). The 2001 Census shows that the differential between the ethnic minority populations in Reading and Slough still remains although the proportion of the population made up by ethnic minorities has increased in both (to 13.2% for Reading and 36.3% for Slough).

Both Reading and Slough are prosperous towns on the M4 corridor west of London, with very low levels of recorded unemployment. Both once had substantial manufacturing sectors which have given way to service employment although Slough has retained a larger manufacturing sector and it was into these factories that many of the first Asian immigrants to Slough were recruited. Most recruitment to these manufacturers is now of highly skilled engineering and white-collar employees. Large office complexes lie on the outskirts of both towns and both places have seen significant growth of employment in IT (especially software development) over the last two decades. There is also substantial employment in the public sector (health, education and local government) and in retailing and distribution. Young people face essentially a two-tier labour market: jobs for those with graduate qualifications or training in specialised skills for which recruitment is national or even international; and a lower tier of less well paid jobs, ranging from part-time and full-time work in retailing and distribution to factory and office work, for which recruitment is primarily local.

(p.329) The majority of respondents (93%) had done some form of paid work, which was unsurprising given the favourable economic conditions in both localities. In a pattern that mirrors national labour market participation rates, 97% of our African-Caribbean respondents had done some form of paid work, compared to 92% of the white and 91% of the Pakistani young people. There were only limited variations in labour market participation rates in terms of ethnicity, gender or class. However, this apparent similarity masks differences in the type and quality of this work and in young people’s aspirations, as the next section shows.

School-work transitions: different phases, different paths

Imagining careers

The majority of young people start to explore and understand the world of work through:

  • interactions with family and friends who are in paid work;

  • classroom discussion;

  • careers advice;

  • work-experience placements;

  • ‘Saturday’ jobs and other casual jobs.

For most of the young people we interviewed, school-based work experience was a positive experience that helped them construct ideas about the labour market and imagine their role within it. Seventy-two per cent had done work experience at school:

[It was] the first kind of proper place of work with proper adults doing important things. (White man, 21)

Yeah, it was useful yeah because it actually started me off and made me want to do it even more than I wanted to do. (White man, 17, talking about work experience in motor trades)

Not very well in the first years but then when you do work experience you get a taste of it but it’s [school] not, nothing good, they don’t show you the real world. (African-Caribbean woman, 17, talking about why school did not prepare her for work)

However, participation in work experience among our sample was not as widespread as national educational objectives might imply. While there were similar participation rates for white men (68%) and women (75%), African-Caribbean men had very much lower rates (44%) than African-Caribbean women (75%); Pakistani men and women have similar participation rates (57% (p.330) and 62%) that are markedly lower than those of white men and women. Discussions with agencies involved in work-experience placements in Reading and Slough suggest that it is becoming more difficult to find employers willing to take on work-experience students. Moreover, there were specific problems in finding placements for pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds. For example, we were told of difficulties in arranging partnerships between employers and schools with a high number of Asian students, while stereotyped views of young African-Caribbean men resulted in them being offered unsuitable placements.

Despite these reported problems, we did not identify any differences between the types of placement held by young people from different ethnic groups. We did, however, identify clear gender differences (Table 18.2). This is especially marked in relation to jobs involving the ‘care’ of children (done almost entirely by women), and in jobs relating to sport or mechanical/manual jobs (strongly dominated by men). Moreover, the category ‘professional’, which appears gender neutral, hides a gendered allocation to different types of professional work experience (for example, it was women who tried out nursing and teaching), although some categories of professional work such as legal work were as common among the young men as the young women we interviewed.

Other institutions can provide important steps into the paid labour market both through the experiences and encouragement they provide and because involvement in voluntary work, clubs and sport is seen positively by employers. Forty-two per cent of our respondents had done voluntary work. However, this activity seems to be more common among women (61% of volunteers were women) and those who had, or were aiming for, A levels and degrees.

Table 18.2: Work experience and gender (White, African-Caribbean and Pakistani respondents)a















































Sport and leisure










All other





No work experience











(a) All respondents for whom work experience was known – 28 women and 40 men did not give us this information.

(p.331) Young people, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds, spoke warmly about the encouragement they had received through the voluntary sector:

There was a couple of youth workers in there … she was so interested in our lives and … she gave me the kick-start I needed. (Pakistani man, 19)

Yeah, because since I was on that, my whole life, my whole life has changed. Opportunities have opened up and my whole attitude to life has changed. (Mixed-race man, 19, talking about The Prince’s Trust).

Careers advice, both from school-based careers advisors and the local careers centre can also play an important role in suggesting training and career opportunities to young people. There were mixed responses to our questions about careers advice, but on the whole they were negative. Young people who had established ideas about their future found the careers service a useful provider of factual information, but for the remainder it did little to enlighten or enthuse them about the options available. Some had not realised the potential value of careers advice while others found the advice given stereotyped and unimaginative:

She told me to be a builder or a taxi-driver. (Pakistani man, 19)

I never went to any careers interviews in school, that was my fault but I didn’t know where the careers centre was to be honest, when I left school I didn’t know anything, so like. (Pakistani man, 19)

Because they were saying, “Oh, where do you think you could get the information from?” and you were like, “Well, you’re the careers advisor, you should be telling me”. “Now, what do you think you want to be doing with your life?” – give me some help! (Pakistani woman, 19)

We didn’t really speak to the careers officer so, we don’t seek any advice from you know there’s a careers place in town somewhere isn’t there? (African-Caribbean woman, 17)

For some young people with low qualifications, careers advice consisted of teachers advising them to remain in school so they would ‘get a better job’. We interviewed a number of reluctant and unhappy sixth-formers, many of whom were male, who were questioning the value of staying on at school when it had failed to translate into better job opportunities for older friends and family. In contrast, more young women believed that education was a route into a better job.

About half of 16–18 year olds had used the careers centre, but women in this age group from all ethnic groups were more likely to use the careers centre than men. Interestingly, although the numbers are small, there is an indication (p.332) that young Pakistanis and African-Caribbeans are more likely to use the careers centre than white young people, perhaps reflecting more difficulties in finding out about work opportunities from family and friends than is the case for the other two groups.

Only 45% of our overall sample had done ‘Saturday’ jobs or casual paid work and young people aiming for A levels and university were less likely than those aiming for lower qualifications to involve themselves in such paid work. Among 16–17 year olds, women of all ethnicities were more likely to have tried Saturday work than their male counterparts (just as they were more likely to have visited the careers centre). However, this gender differential had disappeared by the age of 18–19. It seems that young men may be a little slower to start out in the labour market than young women.

Most young people felt parents played a positive role in discussing job options and training and education decisions. The majority of both parents and children believed that gaining qualifications was important to a successful working life although, as expected, those of middle class and minority ethnic background expressed these attitudes more strongly:

You, like, need qualifications, you have to have qualifications; if you don’t have that then you won’t get nowhere in life. (Pakistani man, 17)

In particular, mothers were often cited as giving encouragement and support and young women’s aspirations often involved doing better than their mothers and ‘not having to scrape around for money’ or do menial jobs. Young Pakistanis talked about the pressure from parents for them to stay at school to improve their job chances. With the exception of the few interviewees who were estranged from their parents or who had difficult home backgrounds, parents were reported as encouraging their children to make their own choices of training and career. However, this enabling role was limited by parents’ lack of knowledge about the youth labour market and training and career options.

We asked young people to discuss what they thought of as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jobs and ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ jobs. The responses of the majority of the interviewees related either to their own (or family and friends’) immediate experience or to very general stereotypes of jobs. There were no significant ethnic, class or gender differences in attitudes. The majority of ‘bad’ job types mentioned were concerned with dirt (cleaning and refuse collection), working with food or manual labour; ‘good’ jobs are white-collar occupations. Traineeships for skilled manual work are not seen as attractive both because of what is seen as ‘low pay’ and because they do not fit the ‘good’ job image. Although many respondents thought that jobs done largely by men were more likely to involve ‘heavy’ tasks, there was little trace of any positive association between skilled or unskilled manual work and a desirable version of masculinity. Young people felt the most important characteristics of jobs were whether you enjoyed doing them and the social quality of the working environment. Money earned was important but far less important than these first two characteristics. (p.333) The prospects offered by a job were mentioned far less frequently than the other three factors while only a tiny 5% mentioned that ethical considerations would affect their evaluation of a job. It is clear that young people value work as a social experience; most have not yet thought about issues such as pensions and long-term pay and promotion prospects, and they imagine a desirable job as one involving ‘white-collar’ work.

During this first phase of the school–work transition, involvement in work experience and paid work is differentiated by gender, ethnicity and academic trajectory. Furthermore, it is plain that, with the important exception of work experience, the majority of information about training and career possibilities comes from parents, schools and careers advisors – few employers are directly involved.

Apprenticeships in employability

Almost three fifths (58%) of our interviewees had done part-time work and a third (32%) had done temporary paid work. Part-time jobs in the buoyant service economies of Reading and Slough are abundant, and few young people reported long-term problems in finding part-time work.

The social networks of parents and friends were very important to finding the first part-time job – over half had found their first job by this route. These networks were usually focused around the neighbourhood and school. Most other young people had found their first part-time jobs through ‘cold-calling’ on potential employers, usually shops or restaurants. Young Pakistanis in both towns were more likely to find their first jobs through peers or cold-calling than through family – perhaps reflecting the lack of employment of mothers and the perceived unsuitability of fathers’ occupations as a source of employment (Lloyd Evans and Bowlby, 1996). Using peer group friends for job search biases information flows since such friends often share the same gender, ethnicity, class and neighbourhood. In both towns we found some employers had become the preserve of a particular ethnic, gender and class group for part-time work. These biases in information about part-time jobs are of little significance to the careers of young people who continue their education, but, for the minority who enter work straight from school, such sources remain highly significant.

The interviews showed that most young people and their parents regard part-time work as a ‘normal’ activity for older teenagers and some parents were reported as strongly encouraging their children to do it. Rates of participation in part-time work among young people from different ethnic backgrounds were similar, as was the type of work. Table 18.3 shows that retail work accounted for nearly half of all part-time work and appears to be equally available and attractive to young men and women. However, there were differences in the types of shop in which men and women worked. Young men were more likely to work in bike shops, sports shops and menswear and young women in all other retail outlets. The exception is supermarkets, where we found no evidence of a gendered pattern of employment although there may be gendered differences (p.334)

Table 18.3: Part-time work and gender (White, African-Caribbean and Pakistani respondents)a










































Sport and leisure










All other











(a) Based on the 1st and 2nd part-time jobs they had held;

(b) Number of jobs.

in the type of work done within the store. In other occupations there is evidence of familiar gendered divisions.

Most of the young Muslim Pakistani women interviewees were doing or had done paid work and had plans to continue working full-time when they had finished their education. However, several of these young women told us of friends whose parents did not allow them to do part-time work or who were placing restrictions on their career choices:

I’m quite lucky to work as well because I’m Asian and there’s a lot of Asian people that are not allowed to work, like my friends here; hardly any of them work. (Pakistani woman, 16, interviewed at school)

It is possible that the young Pakistani Muslim women who were willing to talk to us were those whose parents encouraged participation in paid work or that these young women wanted to present their parents as doing so. Although there are young Pakistani Muslim women whose parents restrict their ability to do paid work or take up the career of their choice, it is important to challenge the stereotype that this is the case for all or that only ‘westernised’ young women wish to do paid work. Some Pakistani women we interviewed counterposed a religious identity based on an informed reading of the Koran, which they endorsed, to a ‘cultural’ identity as Pakistani, which they wished to challenge. This strategy allowed them to question codes of behaviour that could be construed as ‘cultural’ rather than religious, including the undesirability of paid work for women. Many of these women wore the hajib with western dress that conformed to Islamic principles. Dwyer (1999) reports similar findings.

We have seen that there are differences in the part-time work done by men and women. In addition, in the interviews, young people suggested both that (p.335) employers preferred women to men and that those from ethnic minorities often faced discrimination. More particularly, Pakistani youth in Slough suggested that Pakistani men faced negative stereotypes when seeking work:

One thing, it’s harder for boys to get jobs than girls … because boys, especially Asian boys, Pakistani boys in Slough. Haven’t you heard of them, Slough boys? They’ve got bit of a reputation for being trouble…. (Pakistani woman, 17)

This negative reputation seemed to be stronger in Slough than in Reading. However, in both towns, young African-Caribbeans believed that African-Caribbean men have a problem in getting work “cos it’s how they’re seen, innit? It’s like they think they’re all bad and whatever” (African-Caribbean woman, aged 19, Slough). The impact of such images of young African-Caribbean men was evident in their accounts of negative reactions to their appearance by employers.

In our interviews, both young people and employers said part-time jobs provide experience and skills that will help young people in future employment. Certainly these jobs provide experience of timekeeping, of social interaction within the workplace and, often, with the public. They frequently require some degree of financial responsibility. With some notable exceptions, however, they offer rather limited training opportunities. Young people tend to work alongside other young people and we found little evidence of mentoring or training that would allow them to enhance their job status. The jobs are often low-paid, low-status service sector jobs or ‘stop-gap jobs’ (Tannock, 2001) that offer few opportunities for long-term career development. Moreover, in buoyant labour markets such as Slough and Reading, many young people flit between these jobs according to short-term pay differentials and peer group influences – a tendency that does not encourage employers to invest in training.

Views on the quality of opportunities in the part-time youth labour market differed quite markedly between young people of different educational and class background and between Reading and Slough. Those who are still studying for qualifications perceive both Reading and Slough to be good places to find the part-time work they require. Typical comments were:

Reading’s a good place to get jobs. (White woman, 16)

I mean not full-time but part-time work there’s a lot going. (White woman, 17)

There’s so many jobs out there for everybody. (Pakistani woman, 24)

These young people did not think of these jobs as relevant to their later careers. They were content to see them as a source of money and ‘life’ experience because “they’re not proper jobs anyway”.

(p.336) In contrast, among those who did not hope to gain more than the equivalent of one or two GSCEs, there was a feeling that the labour market consists of an abundance of low-paid, part-time service sector jobs or ‘stupid jobs’ that offer few opportunities for career advancement and movement to full-time positions. Some young workers already felt part of a ‘stop-gap’ work cycle which breeds negative views for the future:

If you get the job you’re very lucky and it’s usually terrible pay. (White woman, 16)

Cos at my age there’s not many possibilities … at the moment you’re stuck at the bottom thinking “Oh, I can’t be bothered”, y’know? “Stupid job”. (White woman, 16)

Lots of retail and nothing else. (African-Caribbean woman, 18)

Young people were less positive about Slough than Reading. In particular, Slough was perceived as offering particularly few good job opportunities for those with lower qualifications and as offering a two-tier labour market stemming from its selective secondary education system:

Going to grammar or secondary modern can change the whole course of your life… It’s really unheard of for kids on council estates to manage to get into grammar schools … feel like you’ve failed at 12. (White man, 17, Slough)

During this phase of the school–work transition, young people become more clearly divided into those who are working for academic and non-vocational qualifications and those who think their chances of gaining good qualifications to be small. While the former find the buoyant labour markets of Reading and Slough a valuable source of paid work, some of the latter become discouraged:

All good jobs [are] taken by people who have sort of got brains above C. (African-Caribbean man, 17)

It appears that, from the point of view of young people, employers fail to engage adequately in the first and second stage of the school–work transition. They are not proactive in seeking links with schools, in providing work experience or in offering innovative training to young part-time workers. How do employers see it? Our interviews with agencies and employers suggest that employers are increasingly reluctant to take work experience placements and to become involved in educational programmes. They say they lack suitable jobs, that health and safety concerns limit the jobs young people can do and that economic uncertainty and the internal restructuring experienced by many businesses reduces their ability to engage with ‘peripheral’ activities. Furthermore (p.337) employers do not see this as their responsibility – employers often blamed inadequate teaching and poor parenting for the failure to produce adequately skilled or ‘employable’ young people for the labour market.

Most employers and public sector agencies believe there is a skills mismatch in the local labour market and that the skills levels of young people are failing to keep up with the demands of local employers (Khan and Lloyd-Evans, 2000). Employers suggested that young people in Slough and Reading are not ‘hungry for work’ and that high local housing costs prevent young people making the transition to independence from parents and gaining employability attributes such as ‘responsibility’ ‘maturity’ and ‘motivation’. Firms had not dropped their standards in response to such problems or increased their involvement in the training of young people. Rather, many had decided not to employ under-18 year olds, and sought older employees or skilled workers outside the local labour market.

Underemployment of particular groups of youth, especially African-Caribbean young men and Asians, is also seen as an important issue in the Thames Valley (BSLC, 2001). Underemployment, where paid workers are not using their full training and experience potential or where they are working fewer hours than they would like, is key to equality issues in the youth labour market. Three barriers that may hinder the third (final) transition to full-time work for young people from different backgrounds are: firms’ recruitment practices; the explicit attitudes of employers to the employability of men and women, Pakistani, African-Caribbean and white young people; and employers’ lack of awareness of the need for, or implementation of, equal opportunities and diversity policies. These are discussed in the next part of this chapter.

Finding long-term, full-time employment

Recruitment and employability

Although hiring practices varied, a majority of firms favoured both word-of-mouth recruitment and the use of recruitment agencies for non-graduate vacancies. Word-of-mouth recruitment is prevalent for the second-tier part-time and full-time jobs in offices, retail outlets and warehouses. About two thirds of the firms (17 out of 23 in Slough; 13 out of 20 in Reading), used word-of-mouth recruitment as a significant element of their recruitment procedures. Bonuses or rewards in kind were offered to existing employees for recruiting (for example, £30 for a part-time post or £1,000 or a holiday for full-time recruitment). There was also widespread and increasing use of private recruitment agencies by major firms, especially by the large national or international firms we interviewed. ‘Temp to perm’ strategies were also favoured as low-risk ways of recruiting candidates who might fit a firm’s corporate culture with permanent positions generally filled from those employed initially on a temporary basis. Most of these firms claimed that public agencies, such as the Job Centre, do not provide recruits who are either ‘employable’ or ‘suited’ (p.338)

Table 18.4: The five skills most highly rated by the firms surveyed


% of companies listing each skill in top five skills

Communication/interpersonal skills


Willingness to learn








Total number of companies


to the employer. The notion of ‘suitability’, in relation to both the firm’s identity and to fellow employees, is of particular salience in understanding the employability and skill criteria used by many firms.

In collaboration with the Windsor-Slough Education Business Partnership, we carried out a questionnaire survey of the skill requirements of firms in the Slough labour market in 1999, to which 155 companies responded. Employers were asked to identify the ten most important skills in order of priority from a given list of skills and key competencies. These results were combined with the insights gained through the in-depth interviews with employers. Five skills stood out as the most desired (Table 18.4). Only a small proportion of companies did not list these five skills in their top ten. Some skills were seen as valuable, but teachable through employment and work-based training: negotiation skills; IT skills; resilience; anticipating change; learning quickly; and compromise. Many employers thought part-time paid work and involvement in clubs and voluntary work helped young people acquire these skills and favoured candidates with such experience.

For all but the least skilled jobs, employers required qualifications or ability to pass their own numeracy and literacy tests, but these qualifications alone are not sufficient to make a young person employable. Employers also assess candidates on a range of ‘soft skills’ and personal attributes. Most employers believed these soft skills were attributes rather than skills that could be learned. Judging a young person’s possession of these attributes was a highly subjective process and respondents had considerable difficulty in defining what it was they sought in employees’ personalities. Table 18.5 shows some of the words

Table 18.5: Employers’ selection criteria: words used to describe desirable personal attributes

‘Fitting in’

Interpersonal skills


the right person a good personality someone who fits in behavioural issues right appearance nicely spoken right attitude our style

composure maturity a buzz the bubble likes people gets on with people a people person

driven motivation something inside the X factor

(p.339) and phrases used by employers and indicates the high value placed on ‘fitting in’ and ‘good’ communication styles as well as motivation.

Employers’ requirements for ‘soft skills’ imply demands for socially learned, acceptable self-presentation and communication styles that act against those who appear strongly ‘different’ in dress, speech or behaviour. This not only includes many young people of ethnic minority background but also some young white working-class women and, especially, men. Many employers were explicit about their preference for employing young women. Young women were said to be more mature and responsible and more likely than men to possess communication and facilitation skills. However, there is little evidence to suggest that employers’ preferences for young women are being translated into better long-term opportunities. Young women just appear to be more sought after in the buoyant part-time phase of the school–work transition and for second-tier full-time jobs.

The desire to recruit young people who are socially acceptable to co-workers tends to perpetuate the gender, ethnic and class characteristics of existing employees. The desire to ensure that employees communicate well with customers leads to a move towards socially ‘safe’ employees – in the South East of England we suggest these will be people who can use broadly middle-class, ‘English’ styles of communication. In some circumstances, for example, retail firms serving a diverse local population, the desire for acceptability to customers can promote ethnic, class or gender diversity in firms. In general, however, our findings support the argument that the pressures are for employers of people in service occupations to select people whose social behaviour and presentation fit dominant ideas of social acceptability (Duster, 1995). In a white dominated society, this will incline employers towards those who either are white or who can ‘play for white’. Furthermore, the comments by employers on women’s possession of communication skills, suggest that the image of the ‘good’ young employee is not only white English and ‘middle class’ but also ‘feminine’. This leaves non-white young men in a situation where they are especially likely to have difficulties in obtaining employment and associated work experience. As we have seen from our interviews with young people, this issue is recognised among young people themselves. Despite the promotion of equal opportunities and campaigns such as the Commission for Racial Equality’s Leadership Challenge, many employers have not thought about or are unaware of the implications of adopting particular recruitment and hiring practices.

Equal opportunities and embracing diversity

The majority of firms in our study had a limited understanding of equal opportunities. Ideas about embracing diversity were even more vague. When ethnic difference was raised in the interview many employers became wary and claimed that they were ‘colour-blind’ in their employment practices and equated this with operating an equal opportunities policy:

(p.340) Ethnicity is not an issue here … we treat everyone equally. (Engineering firm, Reading)

Implicit in many employers’ discussions of equal opportunities is the notion that employees from ethnic minority backgrounds can achieve ‘whiteness’ in their work behaviours and self-presentation, and thus employers can and should be ‘colour-blind’. A minority of smaller employers showed a lack of awareness of equal opportunities issues by voicing stereotyped ideas about ethnic minorities. However, there were striking differences in the way in which employers in Reading and Slough talked about the issues.

In Reading, many employers said they were unable to talk about ethnic difference either because they had little experience of employing Asian or African-Caribbean people or because they were ‘colour-blind’. Employers had to be prompted to talk about issues such as provision for religious worship or appropriate dress and, while most said they would be willing to accommodate such differences, many clearly had never done so. Firms explained low proportions of ethnic minority employees as the result of a lack of applicants. They were very reluctant to talk about ethnicity as if mentioning ethnicity or difference might lay them open to accusations of racism. In contrast, in Slough, especially among the larger firms, there was a high degree of awareness of the potential sensitivity of the issue and many had a well-rehearsed policy approach and stressed that they implemented equal opportunities. Here, a more common explanation for low ethnic proportions in their labour force was “they lack the skills”. In most firms, this was regarded as a ‘fact of life’ even in those who had severe difficulties in recruitment. Firms were not attempting to devise or adopt policies to recruit, and support and train non-standard applicants – for example, to use methods advocated by the Commission for Racial Equality.

In Slough, most employers believe they understand cultural differences and claim to be happy to make provision for religious practices and appropriate dress, although they were far more alert to issues concerning young Asians than young African-Caribbeans. However, their recognition of cultural difference sometimes slipped into stereotyped and negative views about employing ethnic minorities. Many employers talked about three ‘problems’ posed by employing young Muslim Asians:

  • that the demands of the family take precedence over the demands of the job, especially for women, and that parents did not take daughters’ employment seriously;

  • that young Pakistani men and women were not committed to employment;

  • that young Pakistanis often want to take a large amount of leave to return to Pakistan at short notice or take leave too often for religious celebrations.

We do not wish to deny that employers had experienced such problems with particular employees, but these comments suggest a negative stereotyping of all young Pakistanis, especially women, by some employers.

(p.341) In both Slough and Reading, few firms actively monitored the ethnic composition of their labour force. Although nine of the firms we interviewed had signed up to the Commission for Racial Equality’s Leadership Challenge, only four were actively monitoring. Only one firm employed a proportion of ethnic workers equivalent to the proportion in the local population. A common view was “if you’re following a diversity policy you don’t need to monitor ethnicity” (Manufacturing firm, Slough). In Reading, only five of the 17 larger firms could easily find for us their proportion of ethnic minority workers.

Three firms from Reading and two from Slough did actively monitor the ethnic composition of their labour force and implemented policies specifically intended to increase recruitment of such groups. One human resource manager stood out:

We compare the branch with the census information for Great Britain and then the census information for Reading … when I saw our figures for last year, I thought “I can’t justify this”. I feel uncomfortable, and when we’re struggling to recruit anyway there must be no excuse for not, you know, using that as one of the areas we need to look at. So we’re making a concerted effort. (National retailer, Reading).


Our interviews with young people and employers raise a number of important questions about the changing nature of school–work transitions, the crucial roles played by schools, agencies and employers, and the extent to which gender and ethnicity still shape labour markets in modern urban economies. Our discussion of young people’s labour market experiences has implications for a range of policy issues, but here we focus on two fundamental policy strategies: first, the need to reaffirm the importance of equality in education, training and the labour market, not only in relation to ethnicity and diversity, but also in relation to gender; and second, the need to induce a greater synergy between the home, youth-related education and agencies and the workplace in order to help young people make more informed decisions about their lives.

Re-emphasising equality of opportunity

Although many of our young interviewees no longer believe in the existence of a gender division of labour, it is clear from our research that the school– work transition is a highly gendered process, and one that is strongly inflected by ethnicity and class. Young women’s desire to ‘do better’ than their mothers often leads to increased educational and work aspirations, but such hopes are unlikely to be fulfilled as they still seek work in traditionally ‘female’ occupations that remain low paid with limited career opportunities. Among employers and agencies, there was some complacency about issues of gender inequality. However, we contend that from the classroom to the workplace, there should (p.342) be a renewal of attempts to encourage young women and men to break out of gendered career paths, trajectories that neither help young women to fulfil their long-term career aspirations nor assist young men in finding work in the new service economies.

The transition to full-time work is one of the most difficult for young people to negotiate. It is here that racialised and gendered notions of skills and employability attributes shape young people’s career opportunities. Since the Race Relations (Amendment) Act of 2000, the government requires that equality of opportunity should be centrally integrated into the culture and organisation of public sector bodies, including education and training providers (see Bhavnani, 2001). Based on our experience of employers’ poor equal opportunities practice, we would advocate the extension of this legislation to incorporate private businesses. Organisational cultures that maintain subjective notions of ‘employability’ need to be challenged to implement effective equal opportunities policies that embrace diversity and equality.

Closing the loop in the school–work transition

Transitions from childhood to adulthood are constructed around formal education and learning in schools and colleges, and informal socialisation in the household and family sphere. Entry into the spaces of the labour market is seen as undesirable for children until they become adolescents, although, by the age of 13, some young people have already had experiences that condition their ideas about jobs and adulthood (Johnston et al, 2000). Such an arrangement does little to help children, particularly those from working-class and minority ethnic backgrounds, to develop positive aspirations and ideas about different work and training opportunities. School-based careers advice needs to be provided earlier, the boundaries between school and business need to be more permeable and parents should be brought more centrally into each phase of the school–work transition. Employers, particularly small- and medium-sized enterprises, should be offered incentives to invest in the youth labour market. This would require addressing the tensions in the current relationship between school and further education providers, partly based on competitive funding arrangements for sixth-formers, which do not help to foster more constructive linkages.

In 2000, when our field research ended, the government introduced the Connexions service, a new focus for youth training and employment, which aims to ‘join up’ the rather fragmented provision of career advice and training that we have highlighted in this chapter. While this service is still in its infancy, we are optimistic that a more integrated policy approach will improve the quality of advice and information available to young people. However, it is important that this is focussed not only on the most disadvantaged young people but on all in order to avoid perpetuation of gendered and racialised inequality in the labour market.

In our introduction, we asked whether problems of racial and gender (p.343) inequality in employment become insignificant in buoyant labour markets, and whether such markets allow successful challenges to gendered and racialised differences in labour market behaviour. The answer, clearly, is ‘no’. Gendered and racialised expectations remain very significant to young people’s career chances and choices. Moreover, although such labour markets do offer almost all young people the opportunity to take up part-time paid work, they do not offer all a career path to adequately paid full-time work. Class background also affects young people’s career opportunities. It strongly influences educational performance. Educational performance in conjunction with inadequate understanding of labour market opportunities limits many less academically able young people (who are not in other ways ‘disadvantaged’) to a future of insecure and poorly paid employment. This disadvantage is intensified for young people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Thus underemployment of certain groups of young people rather than their unemployment still limits the effective use of labour and hence competitiveness of buoyant urban labour markets.


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