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Understanding young people’s experiences of employment

Published: March 2021

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities was established in July 2020, with the aim of examining inequalities across the UK and making evidence-based recommendations to address ethnic disparities. As part of the Commission’s work, we were appointed to conduct independent qualitative consultations on higher education, employment and criminal justice in November 2020-January 2021.

Aims of the study

This consultation aimed to understand the enabling factors and barriers for working-class young people when accessing employment, and the factors influencing whether they are in low- or high-skilled employment. Young people who identified as working class from Black, South Asian and White ethnic groups participated in the consultation. We adopted a multi-ethnic definition of working class (PDF), which allowed us to explore shared working-class experiences across ethnic groups, while also examining how ethnicity and class intersect to shape the experiences of working-class Black and South Asian young people.


Our key findings were:

1. Pathways to high-skilled employment: Working-class young people in high-skilled occupations were more likely to have: completed degrees with defined career paths, received formal and informal careers guidance, and gained relevant work experience during or after their degrees.

2. Getting ‘stuck’ in low-skilled employment: Working-class young people in low-skilled occupations typically started these jobs while studying or after graduating out of financial necessity. Once in these jobs, they often lacked the time and/or experience required for successful applications to high-skilled employment.

3. Barriers based on class: Across ethnic groups, working-class young people faced multiple disadvantages in the labour market. These included a lack of social capital, regional disparities and class-based discrimination.

4. Barriers based on ethnicity: Working-class young people from Black and South Asian backgrounds faced additional disadvantages in the labour market. These included a lack of role models in education and employment, and experiences of racism when applying for and working in high-skilled occupations.


Young people who participated in the study offered the following recommendations to address some of the employment barriers and challenges they faced:

1. Establish mentoring programmes through which mentors from similar backgrounds in high-skilled occupations can support and guide working-class young people.

2. Provide early and effective careers guidance at school and university.

3. Establish targeted government initiatives to help working-class young people secure placements and access post-graduate qualifications.

4. Improve working-class Black and ethnic minority representation in the high-skilled workforce and senior positions.


We conducted six online focus groups in December 2020 with 32 young people who self-identified as working class and were currently employed in a low-skilled or high-skilled occupation. Of the young people who participated, 28% identified as Black African or Black Caribbean (including a mixed ethnic background), 34% as Bangladeshi or Pakistani, and 38% as White. Due to the small sample, there are limits to how fully the findings reflect the diversity of experiences and views across these groups.

Focus groups were broadly organised by ethnicity and type of employment, and were facilitated by lead moderators from a similar ethnic background to participants. This design aimed to create a safe space in which participants could discuss their views and experiences. As discussions often covered potentially distressing topics, including experiences of racism, the research team provided relevant support information at the end of each focus group.