‘We work to make ourselves unnecessary’

9th November 2018

Sarah Rees headshot

Sarah Rees

Youth unemployment rates in the UK as of June this year were the lowest they have been since records began in 1992. This fact, while true, says nothing of the challenges that young people still face as they try to find a place for themselves in the business world. Technology may have multiplied the opportunities for today’s youth, but the accompanying bombardment of information and influence has made the transition from education to a career more complex than ever before.

“Technology is the great enabler and really opens up the possibilities for young people, but many still lack awareness of what the opportunities are, or lack the skills to take them up,” explains Ben Kahn, a trainer on this year’s Nominet Digital Neighbourhood programme, a project facilitated by partner Livity. Ben, along with a team from the youth training business Spiral Skills he co-founded in 2015, was responsible for delivering digital marketing skills training, before the young cohort were matched with local SMEs for paid work experience.

Ben, a veteran of youth outreach work, commends the unique two-pronged approach that Nominet Digital Neighbourhood deployed as a gamechanger when it comes to empowering young people. “We often get involved with skills training, and we also work on matching young people to paid opportunities, but it’s rare to get both together. It’s incredible what a difference that can make – they get skills to put on their CV and work to add to their employment history. It’s mind-blowing!”

‘Mind-blowing’ is a word Ben uses a lot when describing his work, and his enthusiasm for helping the next generation to get ahead is inspiring. Surprisingly, it wasn’t an obvious career path for him. He ‘endured’ a biology degree at university (“I hated biology but loved university”) before joining an environmental charity in London, unsure of what he wanted from life. It was during his work at the charity that he noticed a colleague used to leave early once a week.

“It turned out he was football coaching,” explains Ben. “To be honest, I volunteered because it meant I could skive off work early, but I found that working with young people was so much more exciting than working with adults sat at computers all day.”

He shifted his career towards youth outreach projects and soon realised that many young people lacked the opportunities and support that he enjoyed when growing up. To compound the problem, he believed the traditional education system wasn’t doing enough to prepare the next generation for life in the real world.

“Young people are just slammed with curriculum, pressure and exams. They don’t learn how to complete a tax return, how to present themselves to a client, how to behave in a work place. We aren’t giving them the life skills they need to be successful,” he says. In this digital era, many of these crucial skills pivot around technology – a ‘great enabler’ only if young people have the means of making it work for them.

Ben continues: “Youngsters are growing up with technology now. They know more than I do on some things, but they lack the formal training to communicate and use their skills. Knowledge is useless unless you can apply it and communicate it to a client.” Such transferable skills formed a core element of the Nominet Digital Neighbourhood training. The young cohort got the chance to meet and engage with local business owners, before presenting digital marketing plans that could help them meet their needs.

“And they totally smashed it!” Ben reports delightedly. “I was so proud to watch them standing up there on the final day, delivering these brilliant presentations and impressing the local SMEs.” Not only could Ben see how quickly the cohort had markedly improved, the flurry of emails that followed each training session reaffirmed his belief that the programme was transformative for the young people involved.

“Some of the stories are just fantastic, and so many of them couldn’t believe that this great training was provided for free in their city. It’s such a satisfying feeling to know we have really made a difference,” says Ben.

It wasn’t only the young people who learnt new things through the programme: “It sounds so obvious, but I was surprised at how different young people are in different cities. In the areas where there were less opportunities for them, they were often more shy, with unrealistic expectations and ideas. In other places they were more cynical; too many opportunities demanding their attention meant they lost interest.”

Ben sees the potential in bringing together the regional cohorts to allow young people to learn from one another. “It does them good to realise that other people think differently, and they all gain so much from each other during programmes like this. Life can be so isolating for young people today, so it helps them to work closely with others and engage with real people.”

Isolation is just one ironic by-product of the ubiquity of digital devices today. “For many young people, social media is just a threat to their mental health and not an opportunity to make money,” Ben explains sadly. “Programmes like this allows them to use their natural skills for something productive.” Plus, he reminds, “digital technology offers young people an unbelievable opportunity. They just need confidence. We have to keep offering them more of these non-traditional ways of teaching tech to allow them to unlock it.”

Ultimately, recognises Ben wryly, he is working to make his own company – and projects like Nominet Digital Neighbourhood – obsolete. “Don’t they say we work to make ourselves unnecessary?” he asks. But when it comes to making a meaningful difference to the lives of the future generation, who would want it any other way?

Find out more about Nominet Digital Neighbourhood.