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29 Jun 2021 | 15:15

Young people across the Sport for Development Coalition’s growing network of almost 200 organisations have spoken about the challenges of transitioning from education to employment during the Covid-19 pandemic, and some of the additional barriers they are facing when entering skills-based education and employment. 

The Coalition this month launched its latest policy initiative focused on sport and employability, which will consider the challenges brought on by the pandemic and how Coalition partners are working both ‘in’ and ‘through’ sport to collectively offer scalable solutions for policy-makers, and underscore the contribution sport for development, sport and physical activity can make in supporting employment, training and skill development.


Developing policy and programming based on the input and lived experience from young people like Callum (pictured below), who participated in the HITZ employability programme from Premiership Rugby, will be crucial to that process. He said: “The real world is nothing like school and I think that needs to be addressed more because young people are not given enough of an insight into what happens after you leave school. It's so different. 

“I actually joined HITZ when I was about 19 or 20. I was really struggling with mental health, I had anxiety and depression. I was trying to get a job… but my anxiety was just crippling, I couldn't leave my house. I just didn't feel ready to be in the real world.” 

His health began to improve after joining the HITZ programme. He said: “The best thing that HITZ do is it's not thrown down your throat, you're not shoved in, and (told) ‘you need to go and get work experience’ or ‘you need to work’. It's come in, have a good time joining in with some sport and, without even realising, that builds your confidence, because I never used to be a very confident person. I'd like to think now I'm a lot more confident, I can talk to pretty much anyone. Things like communicating through sports, taking part in employment programmes… it just sort of makes you feel like you are actively doing something to try and better yourself. It's giving yourself a community to be in. Everyone here is like a second family essentially and some of our students don't have that sort of network.” 

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A key strand of the Coalition’s initiative will be articulating the contribution of sport to employability, and highlighting some of the key offers from the sport for development sector. Callum is now working as a Teaching Assistant on the HITZ programme at the foundation of Exeter Chiefs Rugby Club, and he described how the programme – one of numerous sport and employability ‘offers’ across the Coalition – is structured. 

“Premiership Rugby teams all have HITZ programmes and we are based with Exeter Chiefs,” he said. “It’s a programme for 16 to 18-year-olds, so kids who have just left secondary school, like a post-16 education. We give our students opportunities with work experience, help them get their exams if they didn't quite manage to pass English and Maths, and just get them ready for working life, and life in the real world.” 


Zoe, from Birmingham, has a degree but found herself struggling when Covid restrictions prevented her from pursuing her chosen career. “It pushed me right back,” she said. “It was like a nightmare, all of my ideas just went right out of the window. I was left searching endlessly for a job.” 

She joined Sport 4 Life’s employability programme, and has subsequently gone on to full-time employment with their NCS team. “When I first started, the first thing I noticed was just how open and easy-going they were, they were not judgmental in the slightest,” she said. “And that was really nice because I didn't really know what to expect. 

“I've always known that there's more to just doing the sport. You learn communication skills, team-building skills, problem-solving skills, whilst actually playing sports. It's hard for a young person to see that they're learning those skills because they just see it as playing a sport. But when you're playing a sport, especially football, you've got to think of the problem-solving aspect of it. That's what I think people are starting to understand, that sport is not just kicking a ball or throwing a ball. It's actually (about) the mind and the process behind it, and you can give young people so many skills just by playing sports. And that's what I really enjoy.”

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Chloe, from Leeds, was working in customer service as the pandemic began. “Unfortunately due to lockdown - like many other people up and down the country - I lost that role,” she explained. 

Fortunately, through her love of sport, she came across Coach Core, another charity within the Coalition which provides support to young people and works with employers to provide apprenticeships. “I told them a bit about myself and what I was looking to do, and they provided a list of employers and I got to choose my top three, and did an interview with each one. Luckily, I got the one I wanted at Leeds United Foundation. It’s 30 hours per week, we've got five hours education and doing the 'community activator' course, and then 25 hours in Elland Road and throughout Leeds actually delivering and working on those skills.” 

Chloe added: “One of the things that I struggled with, when I was making this decision, was do you go down the pathway of University or colleges and getting a degree, where you don't get as much experience? Or do you do something like Coach Core, where I'm learning throughout the week, I'm getting the chance to do practical (work) every other day. It's a difficult decision to make, but I think it's just about finding those opportunities and taking them with both hands and having the confidence to do that.” 


Kate also benefitted from Coach Core’s apprenticeship programme which she spent at Lancashire Cricket Foundation, the community arm of Lancashire County Cricket Club. The Coalition initiative will seek to integrate schemes and offers like these into local skills improvement plans created by Government and policy-holders. 

Kate said: “One of my best friends is self-employed and but hadn't been self-employed for a year (to get support) so, for the eight months of lockdown, had no income. She had no money coming in and had to go through Universal Credit, which was a nightmare. I was thankful that the apprenticeship remained stable and secure the whole time. 

“If you get eight months of doing nothing, you can get stuck in a rut, you can start thinking what's the point? You just start thinking negative, whereas having the apprenticeship continue and having stuff to focus on education-wise, while we're in lockdown, it kept you going and gave you a reason to wake up, like on a Wednesday you think ‘Oh, I have work that needs to be that done by Friday’. Otherwise, I'd fall behind and I didn't want to fall behind on the apprenticeship because I still wanted to get the job at the end of it, if the funding was there.” 

The Coalition will also amplify and support policy asks from the employability sector, such as the call from the Youth Employment Group (YEG) for the Government to deliver on its ‘Opportunity Guarantee’. “We are looking for some form of quality education, employment and training opportunity for every young person, because no-one should be left behind,” says LJ Rawlings, Chief Executive of Youth Employment UK, one of the founders of the YEG.

Over the coming months, the Coalition’s sport and employability initiative will enhance support and incentives for employers to sustain employment schemes, extend apprenticeships, and provide skills-based training for young people who are at risk of long-term unemployment. This is when a young person is out of work for six months or more, which has risen by 50% over the last year.

The initiative will also seek to highlight additional barriers being faced by young people, for example those from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, low-income neighbourhoods, the LGBT+ community and of disabled people.

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Sisters Lucy and Kirsty are involved with Street League in Birmingham. Lucy recently passed her Maths functional skills, and will soon take English, while Kirsty will start a placement with DHL shortly. Both harbour ambitions to run hairdressing businesses in the future but right now appreciate the step-by-step guidance and support they are receiving from the charity, which is a Coalition member. 

“It's made me feel better about myself, that I'm succeeding in life and getting on with my life and where I need to be,” says Kirsty. Street League has also helped Lucy with independent living, for example by arranging food parcels. She adds: “It's given me motivation and just made me get along with everyone else.” 


In this context, the initiative aims to tackle the inequalities which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Many young people – including those from ethnically diverse backgrounds like Zoe – say mainstreaming equity will be essential when it comes to creating sustainable and relevant opportunities for employment and training.  

Zoe stresses the importance of using a diverse range of voices when it comes to achieving accurate representation when informing policy and programming. “Sometimes I feel like, I only see people like myself in sports. We've got that stereotype where it's people with my complexion that are better at sports and not education. I feel like we do need to change that stereotype.” 

LJ adds in her blog: “It’s absolutely crucial that those young people who face these structural inequalities and are at risk of being ‘left behind’ are properly supported, such as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority backgrounds, disabled people and care leavers.

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“As an example, the reduction in working hours for Black young people (49%) during the pandemic is three times higher than those for White young people (16%). Nevertheless I believe all young people deserve equal access to opportunity, and sport offers us an exciting opportunity around social inclusion.” 

Henry, who has been working with Harrogate Town through the EFL Trust’s Kickstart programme, summed up the last year and a half for young people trying to take their first steps in the world of work. 

“I think the one word to use would be ‘tough’,” he said. “A lot of industries are competitive at the best of times, and when Covid comes, there's just fewer jobs available for everyone because everyone's trying to save their money, keep businesses going. I've got a couple of really close mates who had got the same grade as me and they can't get in. They can't get into the industry. They're applying for hundreds of jobs and having to go down different routes just to get money in.”


Nonetheless, Henry feels more resilient thanks to the support which has been put in place by Coalition partners like the EFL Trust. “I think the big thing that I could take into any interview, I could say ‘I've worked in a Covid environment for the past year at the age of 21 or 22, just as a graduate, and I've come through it other side and hopefully done a good enough job’. The role is probably quite different in a Covid world to what it was beforehand, just how you talk to people. We have to talk on Zoom all the time now instead of meeting in person. That's different for people - especially going into a new job sometimes as well, not being able to meet someone face to face as often as you want, you're meeting maybe for the first time on a Zoom call, it's different.

“But the transferrable skills you get are so important, and I feel like I'm in a much better position now than I was a year ago to go into any job, to be honest.”

Respond to the call for case studies, learning and evidence on #SportForEmployability to inform a sector-wide report and policy brief. Read more here and send your evidence to [email protected]