Unemployed young people in Scotland: do they actually want a job?

In the UK, cutting welfare benefits  has been used as a tool by the government in recent years to “encourage hundreds of thousands of people into work”. The idea is that reducing state-funded welfare is supposed to drive up wages and therefore, presumably, make employment a more appealing prospect for people out of work. Inherent within this argument, or at least implied by this argument, is the notion that unemployed people in the UK don’t really want to work in the first place.

So what then of 16-24 year olds in Scotland?


Photo © 2011 J. Ronald Lee

I’m currently analysing survey data gathered from 909 young josbeekers based in Scotland. To understand the general nature of each respondent’s job search I included some contextual questions. For example, I asked if they were looking for a job that was a “career option”, which elicited the following response from 2 of the demographic subgroups:

Unemployed respondents: 71.4% agreed that they were looking for a career option*

Higher education students: 36.0% agreed that they were looking for a career option

It’s important to note that in the HE students category, the respondents were at different stages of their qualifications. As such, most of them would have been seeking casual work, instead of graduate or other full-time positions (this is supported by the data). However, when the same sub-groups were asked if they would “settle for any job as long as it pays money”, this was the response:

Unemployed respondents: 61.7% agreed that they would take any job that paid money*

Higher education students: 37.7% agreed that they would take any job that paid money

There is something quite moving about those figures. They show that young people who are unemployed are motivated by the idea of finding a job with actual prospects, but most are prepared to take any job in order to get by. In fact, they are far more likely than students seeking casual jobs to take whatever they can get. And the figures are actually distorted somewhat by unemployed respondents who are educated to university level (see the bottom of this blog entry).

It is also noteworthy that the same unemployed respondents had the most flexible attitude towards working evenings and weekends (90.0% agreed) and were only slightly less amenable to the idea of relocation than those who were employed and also seeking a job.

Within the context of this analysis, it is difficult to afford any credence to the idea that unemployed people are not naturally disposed to the idea of finding a job. To the contrary, the analysis indicates that unemployed young people (a subgroup dominated in this sample by young males with lower educational attainment) are aspirational, yes, but also desperate to find a job of any kind just to have an income. Therefore, shifting the onus to the individual level to explain worklessness, rather than focusing on wider societal or economic conditions, seems to be a rather shady tactic at best.

* The figures were higher for unemployed people with lower levels of education i.e. of those unemployed respondents with no qualifications or National level qualifications (Scottish equivalent of GCSEs) 72.4% agreed that they were looking for a career option (0.0% disagreed), whilst an overwhelming 89.7% agreed they would take any job that paid money (3.4% disagreed).

Doing a PhD at Edinburgh Napier University: a short Q&A

Last week, the Edinburgh Napier University Marketing and Communications team ran a feature on the university website called #PhDates. The Valentine’s-themed special was used to promote research being undertaken by PhD students at the university, and to encourage others who may be interested in doing academic research to think about Napier as their institution of choice.


Here is my short Q&A about my PhD and life at Edinburgh Napier University:

Can you tell us a little bit about your current research and what it entails?

My research is about how young people find job search information from their social contacts, and the role of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in this process. Specifically, I’m interested in finding out who young people ask for help, what the nature of these relationships are, and what type of information they are looking for. I also want to know if digital technologies are widely used by young jobseekers, and whether they are an effective source of job information.

How did your passion for your research area develop?

My career history has been a bit like a patchwork quilt. I’ve worked in retail, accountancy, information services, and I’ve even got a Class 2 truck driving license. I spent a long time trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and learned a lot along the way about becoming employable and how difficult it is to find a job. I feel as though my experiences really drew me towards the research project, and that I can make a genuinely useful contribution with it. Also, with a background in Information Science, how people find and use information online is of much interest to me. Information is so readily available to us in the western world, but that creates its own difficulties, and it is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Apart from your doctorate, what do you hope to achieve with your research?

My project is partly funded by Skills Development Scotland, who are the national careers information and guidance organisation. Teaching people to use the power of their networks is an integral part of their service provision, and they want to develop a better understanding of how social media can be used to increase the employability of Scotland’s workforce. I want my research to have a genuine impact on careers policy in this area.

Explain your educational background so far

I did a BA (Hons) in Business Studies at Glasgow Caledonian University from 2004-08.  I returned to full-time education in 2013 and did an MSc in Library and Information Science at the University of Strathclyde, and graduated with disctinction.

Why did you choose Edinburgh Napier as your place of study?

My research centre within the School of Computing is called the Centre for Social Informatics. It is very highly regarded within the field of Information Science at an international level, with excellent research output. My dissertation supervisor at Strathclyde strongly recommended that I study here, and gave a glowing report of my current Director of Studies, Professor Hazel Hall. It was definitely the right choice – I’ve been given so many opportunities at Napier, which I think is a great institution with a very exciting future.

What would you say to anyone thinking about undertaking a PhD research project?

If you have a genuine research interest that you want to pursue then why not? Doing a PhD is a fantastic opportunity. It has given me the chance to present at conferences abroad (and elsewhere in the UK), become a published author, teach undergraduate students, participate in other research projects, and meet endlessly interesting people. It is challenging, but you are unlikely to replicate the experience elsewhere, and will develop your skillset immensely.

And finally, why do you love your research area?

It’s so diverse! It flirts with a number of research fields – sociology, computer science, information science, labour market research etc. It gives me the chance to learn about so many different things, which can be very empowering (and a wee bit scary at the same time!). But it is also very topical and necessary. Young people use social media all of the time, so if some of this usage can be harnessed to improve job search then it will be worthwhile.

You can see my feature by clicking here. Other PhD researchers Emine Akgun and Lee Curley also contributed.

Six pieces of advice about doing a PhD

Now that I am nearing the end of my PhD funding period, I thought I might as well pass on some of the ‘wisdom’ I have gained throughout the process. This post is for anybody out there who is embarking upon a PhD, or is thinking about starting one. So, in no order of importance, and with no specific theme, these are just some things that I think are worth considering:

  1. Carry a notepad everywhere you go to jot down relevant thoughts.

A large part of the PhD process involves thinking, and quite often this thinking doesn’t happen in favourable circumstances (i.e. when you are sitting at your desk working on the thing you are having thoughts about). To this end, it is handy to have a jotter of some kind where you can record random thoughts about your project. Otherwise you will almost certainly forget them. (Extra note: use the notebook exclusively for this purpose, and review what you have written at semi-regular intervals).

2. Additional activities are good, but don’t do too many.

The likelihood is that you will have a number of opportunities to do some extra work during the PhD process, both paid and unpaid. This could be teaching, demonstrating, student rep work, workshop/conference organising, other research work etc. etc.

Becoming involved in other projects will improve your CV, your transferable skills, take you out of your comfort zone, help you to create new professional contacts, and possibly give you some much needed perspective on your actual PhD. However, these activities soon add up, and even seemingly small contributions can become time-consuming. So be selective about what you do. If you are asked to participate in something, ask for some time to mull it over, and don’t be scared to turn things down if you feel you are becoming stretched, or are neglecting your research.


3. Anticipate and embrace criticism

Being subjected to criticism of any kind can be difficult to stomach. However, as a researcher and scientist you not only have to accept criticism, but you must also learn to embrace it. Your work will be open to scrutiny from your supervisors, peers, and the wider academic community. And it doesn’t matter how good it is, people will always pick holes in it. Reviewing and taking on board this criticism is one of the best ways to improve your work. As such, you need reevaluate your attitude towards it – it’s a valid part of the process (peer review is actually critical to the existence of the scientific community) that is crucial for your career development.

4. You aren’t an expert, yet.

It is important to remember that you are a fledgeling academic researcher, and that your PhD is an apprenticeship. You could become an expert in your discipline and skilled as a researcher. However, this process could take years or even decades. So don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t get overly stressed about what others think of your work. Equally, it is important to exercise some humility – listen to advice from your supervisors and those with more experience.

5. Take ownership of your work.

Despite sounding contradictory to point 4, it is also important to remember that your research has genuine merit. And the fact you have been accepted onto a doctoral programme means that you have demonstrated the skill set that is required to one day become a fully fledged academic. So whilst you should expect criticism and pay heed to advice from supervisors, don’t be scared to stamp your own personality and individuality on your project. Independent thought is sacred.

6. Stay productive and keep the faith.

There will be times during your PhD when you doubt yourself (for a myriad of reasons), and it can be debilitating. But during those times, force yourself to just keep doing something and make use of everyday*. Keep putting one step in front of the other, even if you don’t know where it is taking you. Keep an eye on the big picture, but don’t allow yourself to be consumed by it – continuous steady work and perseverance will see you through in the end.

* mental/physical health issues notwithstanding.

Finishing the PhD

As is my wont, I have set myself multiple new year resolutions. Writ large at the top of the pile is finishing my PhD within the funding period, which lasts until September – less than nine months.

It’s a strange feeling to actually be at this stage. When I started the PhD process three years seemed like a long time, and I didn’t spare much thought for the actual achievement in itself. It’s not that I didn’t think I could manage it – I  always feel that most things are achievable with perseverance and effort, if you possess the right skillset. It’s more so that the eventuality seemed like a distant spec on the horizon.


Suddenly I’m in the home straight, and I have the following to complete:

  • Finishing touches to my initial qualitative investigation chapter (jobseeker interviews/focus group)
  • Writing up of my survey results
  • Focus group with careers practitioners in the spring
  • Writing up of focus group results
  • Writing up a discussion chapter
  • Updating the literature review chapter
  • Writing up the rest of the thesis (introduction, conclusion, recommendations etc. etc.)

I’m not there yet, and the challenge is not inconsiderable. But I really enjoy the process of writing up, and as such, am optimistic about 2017.


Some challenges data collecting from jobseekers on social media

Part of my survey data collecting strategy involved targeting users of careers services via Skills Development Scotland‘s (SDS) various social media accounts. Rather naively, I thought that this method would be a cheap, quick, and easy way to gather potentially hundreds of responses from young jobseekers.

There was some logic to my misplaced assumption. On Facebook alone, for example, there are at least twenty one local SDS pages. Some of these have hundreds of likes, and some have thousands. Additonally, SDS have a centralised Twitter page with over 16,000 followers, and My World of Work Twitter and Facebook accounts with 6,000+ followers and 13,500+ likes, respectively.

Now, there is likely to be some crossover as far as the followers and “likers” of these pages are concerned (i.e. some of them will have liked more than one of the pages). But even still, I thought that my survey had the potential to reach at least 20,000 jobseekers. Based on that, even a 2% response rate would have given me about 400 responses – which I thought was a cautious estimate.


The reality was very different than the one I’d anticipated, and most of the challenges stemmed from the fact that I was not personally administering the survey. Scattergun dissemination was an issue, for example. The survey was not posted on all of the accounts, or the link was retweeted/shared instead of actually posted. This was understandable given the number (possibly dozens) of very busy people who would have been involved in operating these social media pages.

In the cases where the survey was posted to a social media account, it was often buried under other user-content. That is to say, because the survey was not pinned on any of the pages, it soon disappeared down Facebook Walls/Twitter Feeds and into obscurity. If the social media user wasn’t online within an hour or so of it being posted, it is unlikely they actually saw it. The window of opportunity would have been smaller if the social media user had a busy individual newsfeed.

Not all of those who saw the survey link would have been active jobseekers. This is a pertinent point. Even if, in theory, my survey reached thousands of users who had “liked” or followed the pages where is was posted, it would be almost impossible to determine how many of those users would have been actively seeking work at that time. The period of job search can vary wildly between individuals, before the person either a) finds employment, b) gives up searching, c) takes a break from searching, or d) postpones searching due to other pursuits (e.g. full-time education).

In summary, before I even get to general survey concerns such as survey response fatigue (i.e. people who are eligible to participate, but for whatever reason can’t be bothered), potentially thousands of participants would not have been reached in the first place.




Job search, information literacy, and the need for an information science perspective

A colleague sent me this article, which is a summary of research findings suggesting that less than half of young people in Scotland are successful at finding a job online. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those from disadvantaged backgrounds have fared the worst, and are less likely to have asked a professional for assistance.

For those of us with a background in library and information science, this will not come as a surprise. The issue here, it seems, is that being able to operate ICTs does not necessarily equate to being information literate:

Information literacy: “Knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner” (CILIP, 2016).

My own research findings, at this preliminary stage, also point in the same direction. That is to say, insofar as using social media to find job search information is concerned, people aged 16-24 are not necessarily confident in their abilities to do so.

This is why I would argue that more job search research needs to be conducted from an information science perspective – perhaps now more than ever. As stated by Wanberg (2012, p.3), “job search has become so pervasive and frequent that it is now considered to be an integral part of work”.

People have almost innumerable information sources from which they can access job search information (not only job adverts, but CV help, interview advice, company profiles etc.). This information can be critical to their career development, and the choices they make – now, and in future job searches. As such, understanding job search information behaviours should be a priority.


Post survey data considerations

I have finally gathered a substantial number of responses to my survey questionnaire on job search and social media. The survey was aimed at 16-24 year olds living in Scotland who are currently looking for a job. It has taken me literally months get there, and there have been plenty of trials and tribulations that should make for a good blog post or two in the near future. Maybe somebody out there can learn from my experiences.


In the meantime though, here are a few things I need to think about as I proceed to quantitative data analysis:

1. What is the consequence of having a heterogeneous sample? One of my supervisors questioned me about this on numerous occasions when I was building the survey questionnaire. Had I considered the nature of the group I was sampling? Did I really want to include all 16-24 year old jobseekers?

Well, for me, the answer is still the same now as it was then (which I suppose is a good thing) – yes and no. Yes, because I want my research to tackle the concept of networking at a broader level, and to provide a platform of knowledge from which to probe the networking behaviours of specific categories of jobseekers. No, because it means having to analyse a complex and multi-layered sample.

Within the 16-24 age range, I have picked up responses from people with hugely varying education levels (No qualifications > PhD qualifications), employment statuses, and job search goals. The latter of these is quite significant – some people have multiple goals e.g. I would like a job in my field but am also willing to settle for any job that pays. Making sense of these nuances, and how they have impacted upon networking behaviours during job search, is likely to be time consuming.

2. How representative is my survey sample? It is almost certain that there will be some bias. However, with regard to the general population of young jobseekers in Scotland (or anywhere), I would argue that sampling bias is unavoidable. I will present my argument in a future blog post, because I think the topic merits some discussion in isolation.

There are a few basics to consider though, in terms of demographics. For example, is there a proportionate representation of unemployed respondents? What about people who consider themselves to have a disability, or who were born outside of Scotland – have they a representative voice? To answer these questions, I need to compare my figures with those in general population surveys.

3. What is the data telling meI suppose this is the fundamental question that any researcher would have to consider this stage. Does my data help me to answer my research questions? What trends are emerging from the data? Do they require further attention in the final qualitative element of my field work? To a large extent, the quality of the data I have gathered will depend on the quality of the questions I have asked.