Brap: Providing a Lifeline for Young People in Birmingham, UK

In French they are called ‘beaufs’. In Spanish, ‘chorizos’. In English they are called chavs, and Birmingham is full of them.

At least, that is what a lot of people will tell you. Birmingham, UK, has the one of the youngest populations of any city in Europe. Over half of its population is under the age of 35; 40% are under the age of 25. Its youngest age groups are also its most diverse: forecasts for 2016 indicate around 64% of under-15s will be from black or minority ethnic backgrounds.

This young, diverse profile should be an asset to the city. Unfortunately, young people in Birmingham are often seen as a problem. With unemployment so high, a lot of people call them lazy. After riots broke out in the city and shops were looted, a lot of people labelled them selfish. And with one in four under 25 year olds being Muslim, a lot of people think they’re dangerous.

This isn’t our experience. At brap we work in a number of sectors – mental health, housing, education, health, enterprise and employment, even in cancer care and residential elderly care – to promote equality. We conduct research, train staff, and deliver community-based projects aimed at making life a little fairer for people from marginalised groups. In fact, it’s one of these projects we’d like to talk about here – a youth enterprise programme called Lifeline.

First, a little background to how the project got started. Like many European cities, youth unemployment in Birmingham is much higher than for adults. In Birmingham the youth unemployment rate is currently around 10%, or nearly 8,000 young people. This is almost certainly an under-estimate as it only counts those registered to receive unemployment benefits. Add in those not receiving state benefits and those not in education, employment or training and some estimates put the figure as high as 15,000.

Though youth unemployment in Birmingham fell marginally in the final months of 2014, it remains a major concern. But not a new one. Youth unemployment in the city is a historic problem that’s been with us for over 20 years. In that time, unemployment amongst the under-25s has typically been three and sometimes almost five times higher than overall adult unemployment. It is worst in the most deprived inner city areas (also the most ethnically diverse) and the white working class outer estates. Many in the most disadvantaged groups are dependent on low status/low income employment. There is also a major skill shortage. It is also estimated that over 133,000 people aged 16+ have no qualifications.

In 2012 we published A Line in the Sand, a report based on interviews and survey responses from over 450 young people aged 16-25. We undertook this work to hear the voices of young people – we wanted to personally know what they thought of their prospects and how they felt about the future.

Over 50% of those surveyed expressed concern about the future and their lack of prospects. 7% said they felt ‘really negative’ about the future, and this rose to around 15% amongst those who had been unemployed for a year or more.

Young people were damning about the quality and accessibility of organisations responsible for supporting youth employment. They were almost twice as likely to seek employment advice from friends and family as they were careers advisors or teachers; barely more than a quarter said they would go to a job centre (the main state agency for jobseekers). 15% said they didn’t know where they should seek advice from.

Participants also said they felt that most agencies they were sent to were simply “going through the motions” and were not interested in them as people. They felt that most professional advisors didn’t treat them as adults, or were dismissive, or simply didn’t care.

Most felt that they were viewed negatively by society – that they were seen as ‘doomed’, ‘threatening’, or ‘dangerous’ (these were their words).

Many felt they were subject to negative stereotyping, and while this was strongest amongst those from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, it was not restricted to these groups. Just as France has its banlieues and Italy its quartieri periferici, the UK has stigmatised neighbourhoods – areas of supposedly high unemployment, low-cost housing, and high crime rates. Many young people from these areas told us they felt employers used their addresses as an indicator of their ethnicity, class, and educational attainment. Many young people from the most deprived inner city addresses believed that their job applications would be rejected out of hand.

But worse than this, perhaps, is the fact that for many, employment and the world of work remain a mystery. Barely 40% of participants said they knew what qualities employers were interested in. Virtually everyone in the focus groups and interviews we held said they were angry that schools did so little to help impart practical, useful life skills. (While space here prevents us exploring this aspect fully, the responses we received on questions to do with education were fascinating. While many saw the value of a ‘good’ education – both for personal and career prospects – many felt that financially they were disenfranchised from further education. Most interestingly, many drew a distinction between ‘good’ education and the education they had actually received, feeling that schooling had done little but prevent them from achieving their full potential).

Yes, it’s true, we also found some young people who had wholly unrealistic expectations regarding employment; and some who wanted ‘wealth’ but lacked concrete understanding of how this might be connected with hard work, personal talent and skills, or long-term effort. But amongst those who don’t have any experience of the workplace, whose expectations are zero, whose hopes for the future are minimal, and who are bombarded every day with images of the effortless self-gratification of ‘celebrity culture’, is this really that surprising?

What did surprise us was young people’s interest in enterprise and self-employment, with many seeing starting a business as a route to greater personal autonomy – as well as a means of side-stepping the negative stereotypes and discrimination they believe prevent them from succeeding in the labour market. In effect they were saying, ‘if no one else wants us, then we’ll have to create our own opportunities’.

It was this particular aspect that we decided to do something about. In 2014 we launched a project called Lifeline (funded by the UK’s Big Lottery Fund). The aim of Lifeline is to take young people with an interest in starting a business and help them reach the point at which they can start it. In order to do this, and in order to reflect what we learnt during our Line in the Sand study, we have had to think and do things differently.

We decided the most effective route was to focus on those with an interest in starting an online business, the barriers to market entry being significantly lower for online trading. We would provide them with business skills training and coursework, personal support to help them overcome the issues or barriers they faced, a mentor to help with both business and personal development. For those who made the greatest progress, we would provide fully-funded technical support and website design so that they could get a functioning business website up and running by the end of their training and support period.

At the end of the first year we were able to help six young people set up websites, with another five actively developing business ideas. As 2015 progresses they will continue to develop their businesses – but at a pace that suits them and meets their goals and aspirations. We always have to remember that some in this group are developing their business ideas alongside other commitments, including care-giving or childcare responsibilities, or problems such as insecure accommodation or problematic family lives.

In designing Lifeline we knew we had to formulate an ‘enterprise support course’ that didn’t look or feel like a support course. In many respects, this is the biggest challenge. There are three key ways that Lifeline differs from conventional enterprise support projects.

First, Lifeline targets the kind of young people who don’t normally go on to enterprise support courses – the disadvantaged, those who have problems with authority, those with caring responsibilities, young, single parents, those whose schooling has been disrupted, early home leavers, those in hostel accommodation, those without money or role models, those with no one to believe in them or their ideas. This has meant casting the net quite widely in recruiting to the project – working through youth organisations and homelessness agencies, grassroots community groups, schools and colleges. Importantly, we didn’t focus on just race-based organisations. Ethnicity plays a part in this, and it is true that young Black and Asian people are more likely to be unemployed, but this is far from the whole story. The causes of youth unemployment are much too complex to be reduced to a single factor such as ‘race’. And more than that, the future of Birmingham depends on young people of different backgrounds feeling part of the same city. Providing separate projects for different ethnic groups would send out completely the wrong message.

Second, the personal and pastoral support is as important as the business skills support, and sometimes more so. Consequently, the quality, expertise, patience and personal aptitudes of the mentors we have recruited are vital to the mix. The barriers, problems, ‘issues’ and attitudinal problems that some of the group bring with them are not incidentals to be ignored – they are fundamentally part and parcel of working with this client group. And if you can’t (or won’t) help young people understand and overcome these obstacles, you can’t help them make progress with their business idea.

Third, Lifeline is about reducing the risks of failure. We do not expect that every business idea we help develop and every website we help fund will immediately create a full-time, living wage. But the young people will gain experience and will have a chance to try out their business idea – a chance no one else is able to offer them – in circumstances where the risks and liabilities associated with failure have as far as possible been reduced. Fundamentally, though, it is important to remember that success comes in many forms. A participant’s business idea may not succeed, for example, but during their time with us, that person may have improved their communication skills, developed their understanding of business, made new friends, and – most important of all – started to believe in themselves.

Across Europe there exists a generation of young people for whom the world of work in the 21st century will be far removed from anything that their parents have experienced. Safe, stable long-term jobs, a clear career progression, and a good pension plan: this will not be their world. And we have to do better than simply saying ‘lower your expectations’ or ‘make do’. We have to help provide the skills they will need to navigate this new landscape. This won’t be easy, but if we are involved in delivering the very services that are supposed to help them, then we are at least well-placed to do something about changing those services and making them fit for purpose.

This is the thinking that has informed Lifeline. It means doing precisely what most mainstream enterprise support chooses not to do – giving those who will find it hard to succeed a chance, rather than focusing on those whose background, family circumstances, social status, and education already put them on the path to success in more or less whatever they choose. This is about giving a chance to those who currently lack chances. It is about giving them a future of their own making.

For more information about Lifeline or brap more generally go to If you’re involved in an employment project and would like to talk about what we can learn from each other we’d love to hear from you. Email us at