A perennial challenge of working with out of school youth is how to reach them in the first place. Once out of the formal schooling system, many become ‘invisible’ and are unaware of or unable to reach existing services. According to Minister Indranee Rajah, chair of MOE-led inter-agency task force UPLIFT: “Many [agencies] have programmes that are already very good… What we want to be able to do is connect the programmes with people who really need them.”
In the course of our work we’ve seen some new and highly effective outreach strategies emerge, both in Singapore and regionally. Here we highlight 3 approaches that we find particularly impactful.
1. Create a sense of identity and self-worth from the start
“At risk”. “Disadvantaged”. “Underperforming”. “Reintegration into society”. Terms such as these form a common language used by many organisations and programmes to describe the young people they try to reach out to.
Yet youths fundamentally do not recognise themselves in these terms. For them, a sense of pride and positive identity is paramount. And as we have uncovered, the need to foster self-esteem should be one of the most critical considerations.
Hatch is a Singapore-based social enterprise with a mission to empower youth for meaningful careers. Instead of using the language of limitation, they speak of potential: “Growth careers for everyone”. “Youth from all pathways”. Far from being just surface branding, this perspective infuses Hatch’s entire philosophy and way of engaging with youth. Says founder Victor Zhu: “Labels are powerful and self-fulfiling. Hatch was founded on the belief that all young people have untapped potential, and that there are many paths towards success and fulfilment. If our mission is about growth and development, then we must speak and think in the same language. There is no other way around it.”
2. Make the connection from online to offline
Singaporean millennials spend almost 14 full hours a day on digital devices messaging, gaming, scrolling through social media... an almost constant level of usage that anyone who has ever worked with this group can attest to. Whilst there has been much hand wringing about this, others have seen opportunity.
Fantastic Dream is a Hong Kong-based social enterprise started by Andrew Yun, a gamer with a strong online following who wanted to use his influence for good. By tapping a network of like-minded YouTubers, Fantastic Dream helps non-profits access and engage large and loyal online youth followings in social causes and events.
A non-profit having a hard time getting a cyber-bullying campaign off the ground eventually partnered a famous YouTuber via Fantastic Dream, launching a workshop on “How to be a YouTuber”. Youths learned skills such as how to deal with negative comments and how to communicate a message in under 30 seconds - in effect, learning core skills to combat cyber-bullying, in a different guise.
In another case, Fantastic Dream held a gaming tournament in 5 Hong Kong community centres, where each centre competed against each other across 9 months. Hundreds of youth flocked to the community centres, where they formed teams and competed side by side with social workers and befrienders. This forged invaluable connections and trust that social workers could leverage to support the youths to find positive pathways in life.
Credit: Fantastic Dream
3. Spark the fire in the belly
Start with what the youth want. Youths want short term gains and flexible arrangements. These are two important lessons that we’ve learned. Yet many placement programmes remain rigidly designed - with fixed start and end dates for a relatively long period of 2-3 months - and experience high dropout rates as a result.
What we’ve found works well instead is giving youths an opportunity to discover before committing. University recruiters offer “Career Insight Days”, short introductory programs acknowledging that young graduates need to explore their interests and strengths before embarking on a career. In this regard, out of school youth need exactly the same thing.
Generation, a global youth employment non-profit, offers a 'Week Zero' immersion module with clinical exposure prior to enrollment in its nursing assistant course in India. This "fire in the belly test" significantly lowered their attrition rates. Such tasters also greatly benefit trainees, giving them a more worldly and informed view of what’s possible and reducing the risk of joining a training programme.
Invisible youth are notoriously difficult to reach, but often stand to gain the most. By adopting new and promising outreach strategies, organisations can connect them to meaningful opportunities to build the skills to secure and sustain employment.