John Kearns is CEO of Partas, a social enterprise in Dublin. Among its many activities, and as part of a North-West Europe Interreg project SPIDER, Partas developed an experimental project, supported by the Embassy of the United States in Dublin, to examine the potential for entrepreneurship amongst unemployed youth. The following is the story of that sub-project, named Occupation Transformation.
Occupation Transformation is an exploration of the potential for innovative and radical approaches to youth entrepreneurship by allowing unemployed youth to design what ‘entrepreneurship’ might be for them.
For Generation Y, entrepreneurship can and should be a very different proposition to the paradigm within which previous generations understood it. To fit with current youth culture, it might be something collaborative, valuable, social, short-term, project-driven, adventurous – a way of thinking & acting! This project set out to explore how this might work by allowing unemployed young people to ‘discover’ their own creativity and possible entrepreneurial opportunities in a sharing group environment, with a team of supportive facilitators/mentors.
The aim was to not prejudice the participants’ opinion of what the project was about and to not use language that might discourage them from trying entrepreneurship/enterprise. Therefore, the advertising gave the following obscure information about the project:
The project ran three times and each time there were thirty confirmed attendees. In reality only one-third ever actually turned up to each event. Research with participants showed that despondency and disengagement were the key reasons why people failed to turn up on the day. When it came down to it, they did not have the mental energy to believe that their participation would have any real benefit for them – nothing really mattered; it was going to be just another futile attempt by well-meaning people to tick boxes to show that things were being done. This was our first key learning from the project:
the degree to which young people are negatively affected by unemployment runs much deeper and causes more hurt than had been expected.
To further emphasise this finding, we had asked applicants on the first rotation to share online why they wanted to take part. Given that we had said very little about what the project would entail, this we expected would give an interesting insight into what they felt they needed. A representative sample of responses is as follows:
· I can’t seem to crawl out of the hole of unemployment! … I’m super enthusiastic about a lot of things. I need to find my niche. I am worried years are going to go by and I won't have achieved anything. The thought keeps me awake at night. It terrifies me.
· The fact that I studied so hard during school and college and nothing is coming from it is just heartbreaking. I'm about an inch away from emigrating. All my friends have gone. All of them, And that is just depressing. I just want a chance of opportunity and some adventure.
· I’m so frustrated as I feel I would be an asset to many different companies but it’s almost impossible to get full time work. The process of applying for jobs constantly and the rejection has taken its toll on me, but luckily I’ve found enough strength to push through.
· I went away to Australia for two years and now that I'm back, the option of heading away for meaningful work is again rearing its ugly head, and it’s depressing!
· I am 24 years old and have been unemployed for almost 6 months. The employment opportunities in the field of youth work are extremely limited and I can't help but feel that rather than emigrating, I would rather create my own opportunities.
· I now live in Dublin and I am finding it difficult to develop a career in my field. I feel I have a lot to offer. All I need is to be given the chance to show what I can do.
· I would benefit from a positive kick in a creative atmosphere. I'm frustrated with job searching at this point. I want to create.
Our second key finding from working with the participants was that they greatly appreciated the opportunity to share and discuss their situation with the facilitators/mentors.
They have ample opportunity to share with each other, but felt they had almost no opportunity to really engage with older-generation mentors who showed genuine concern for their plight.
They felt that there were very many intervention-type projects but these tended to be group training based and Occupation Transformation offered them the chance to engage on a one-to-one and equal basis with mature and experienced mentors who could understand and advise them. One group felt so strongly about the value of this that they began their own project to develop this further. They called the project ‘1+1=0’ explained as: one unemployed youth plus one caring mentor equals zero unemployment. They are continuing to develop this project.
A third and surprising finding was that,
despite their hatred of being unemployed, they did not have any great desire to start something for themselves.
Self-employment has been an observable feature of high unemployment with previous generations (the so-called ‘push’ entrepreneurs) and from our starting premise we expected to find more openness to this possibility in whatever form it might take. However, it was clear from our participants that all they really, really wanted was a job. Whether or not it was by chance, those who engaged most with the project, and tried to look seriously at enterprise as an option, ended up gaining employment. This could have been because of increased confidence gained through the project; we like to think so.
We do not claim that our small project was of such a size that it can be claimed to represent the statistical attitudes and preferences of unemployed youth in Ireland, but we do believe that it is a very useful pointer to the areas that those who engage with this priority target group should seek to develop further. It will certainly add to our understanding of the problems of youth unemployment and the measures needed to address it.