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United Utilities - Finalist for the Unipart Award for Outstanding Employment

With an ageing workforce, United Utilities hopes to bring 70 new young people into the business every year, to safeguard its future and give something back to the communities in the region.

Key highlights

  • 20-24 year-old NEETs cost an estimated £22m a week in jobseekers allowance payments
  • One in three employers in the region have recruited a young person leaving education in the last three years
  • The estimated cost to recruit nine people to entry-level roles for the company is £1,800, compared to zero costs when recruiting candidates directly from these programmes.

“As a FTSE 100 business based in the North West of England, we have a responsibility to support the communities in which we operate,” so says Sally Cabrini, director of business services at United Utilities, a company making sure that 7 million people and 200,000 businesses in the region have clean, fresh water every day.

So, what does that responsibility look like? Well, given that youth unemployment among those aged between 18 and 24 is significantly higher in the North West than across the UK – at 14.3 per cent compared to 11.1 per cent, focusing on that issue made most sense. According to the Employer Perspectives Survey by UKCES, just one in three employers in the region have recruited a young person leaving education in the last three years.

Recognising an untapped labour market

Young people are our future workforce. We recognise the challenges they face and realise there is considerable unlocked potential within this diverse community.

- Sally Cabrini - United Utilities
“We have a responsibility to help and support young people to become work ready, enabling them to make the transition from being on benefits to being confident, capable people who have realised their potential and now have real and meaningful career aspirations.”

So, what has United Utilities set about doing? Well, the investment and support filters through to this demographic in a number of ways, using structured programmes to engage with and help young people. These range from an apprentice programme, a graduate programme, a degree apprentice programme, a youth employment programme and early careers activity, such as work experience and internships.

The initial youth programme was developed with the Energy Efficient Industrial Partnership (EEIP), a partnership programme established with the help of other utility companies. But when the EEIP ended, United sought buy-in from the Deparment of Work and Pensions to continue the programme given the benefits it had already realised, including moving 40 young people from claiming benefits to paid employment.

Every 16 to 18 year old classified as NEET (not in employment, education or training) costs the public around £56,000 up to retirement age. A  2010 Government report estimated the weekly cost of 20-24 year-old NEETs as being £22m in jobseekers allowance payments and up to £133m in lost productivity.

The social impacts and benefits are clear. But our programmes also provide a real benefit to the company, helping us achieve our vision of being a leading service provider in the North West.

- Sally Cabrini - United Utilities

With 29 per cent of its 5,000-strong workforce over the age of 50 – the average retirement age being 61 – the business knows it faces a crunch. These programmes help to develop the skills needed to meet its current and future business needs, and providing development opportunities for existing staff who deliver them.

Developing the future workforce

The goal is to recruit around 70 young people every year into one of the employment programmes, and then offer ongoing support so that young people become work ready – for example, helping chemical engineering graduates achieve iChemE chartership, or making sure NEETs graduate with formal first aid certificates and employer references.

Today, the youth programme is a key feature of United’s so-called “attraction strategy” designed to get everybody across the business excited about the programmes. Employee engagement levels are “above UK norms,” according to the business, with the programmes helping to create a feel-good-factor across the organisation.

While the youth employment programme “isn’t driven by savings,” the aim is to build a pool of proven candidates suitable for a number of roles. The estimated cost to recruit nine people to entry-level roles – the success of the latest cohort – is £1,800. Recruiting candidates directly from these programmes costs zero.

While its still too early to understand just how important the focus on youth unemployment is to the growth of the business, the company says it has attracted some great employees with potential to progress, point to the likes of Rebecca who worked in the organics lab and impressed her manager so much she was offered a 12-month role.