WHEN mentor Sue met Rory, a 19-year old from Torbay, they were a little lost in life.

They had been carrying out community service, been struggling with alcohol, living with an eating disorder and trying to find employment.

Rory is one of the 1,068 18–24-year-olds who have received mentoring support as part of the successful Empowering Enterprise (EE) project; a Devon-wide initiative aimed at supporting those Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEET). Empowering Enterprise has been funded by the European Social Fund and National Lottery Community Fund, and managed by Petroc.

Three EE participants and their mentor Bob making bread in North Devon.
Three EE participants and their mentor Bob making bread in North Devon. (DCT)

The charity Devon Communities Together has supported with the evaluation of the project and employer engagement activities throughout the duration of the project (from 2017 to Spring 2023).

Like Rory, most of the EE participants faced significant barriers to accessing employment and education, with many reporting challenges such as traumatic histories, high anxiety, depression, physical disabilities and little or no qualifications.

Underpinning these barriers, young people are often very low in confidence. 

The EE Project achieved success by pairing each young person with a one-to-one mentor, who supported participants to not only secure employment or educational outcomes, but to also develop life skills.

Mentors ultimately helped their young people lead more empowered lives. 

With support, Rory showed true determination and ended up enrolling in a college course and gaining an apprenticeship as a chef - a job they love.

Throughout the project there have been many inspiring stories like Rory’s, highlighting there is a continuing need to support the nearly 11,000 young NEETs in Devon, as well as those elsewhere.

Setting the scene

From the cost-of-living crisis and soaring housing prices to the ongoing impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic (like disruption to education and increased mental health issues) young people today are facing a number of challenges.

The Prince’s Trust Annual 2022 Youth Index found that almost half of all young people who are NEET said being unemployed made them feel helpless and 38 per cent of NEET young people said struggling to find work makes them feel lonely.

The Prince’s Trust Class of Covid report found 49 per cent of young people feel anxious about the future on a daily basis.

This picture is reflected in the stories from Empowering Enterprise, with participants feeling stuck and some reporting staying in their rooms “24/7”.

One participant Dee, who lives in rural Dartmoor with her young daughter, was very isolated and living with high anxiety. 

Working with her mentor helped her grow in confidence, access distance learning courses and Dee is now an aspiring social worker. 

Worryingly, in the last year, the EE project has seen the number of participants experiencing homelessness double, from seven per cent to 14 per cent, and mentors can help navigate such overwhelming practical challenges.

Phoebe was homeless when she joined the EE project and struggled to find anywhere to rent, with no guarantor, deposit or references.

It was with the support of her mentor that Phoebe was able to find a room and access a grant for furniture from a local charity.

Clearly, poor mental health, low employment prospects, lack of confidence in the future and insecurity around basic needs such as housing cannot be isolated from one another when looking at the circumstances of a young person.

Empowering Enterprise's recognition of this and the wrap-around support mentors have provided has been a huge strength of the project, with Rory saying: “past mentors had been more money/job/education orientated, and Sue has always been ‘me orientated’... I always looked forward to our meetings.”

The power of mentoring 

As part of the Empowering Enterprise project, mentors worked with participants for an average time of 30 hours over six to 12 months, through a mix of one-to-one and group sessions.

Whether supporting someone to get on a bus, order a coffee, prepare for an interview, navigate support services, manage their spending or be social with their peers, this time allowed young people to take small steps contributing to their wider wellbeing and self-belief.

One mentor manager stated: “Lockdowns have had a huge impact on young people’s belief in opportunity... Mentors are altering the perception that there is ‘no way forward’ and helping with the softer, more invisible outcomes such as improved anxiety, being able to travel independently or improved family relationships.”

Devon Communities Together, which has supported the evaluation of the project and employer engagement activities has seen how long-term mentoring like this pays dividends, not only for individuals but for employers too.

It says that with staff shortages and skills gaps being commonplace, young people, given the right support, have the potential to be instrumental in meeting these needs and creating a more diverse workforce.

One Plymouth based employer, iOutlet, reported that working with the EE project has opened up new recruitment channels, helping with its busy season.

As a result of working with three participants, they have adjusted their recruitment and induction processes to be more informal and supportive to meet the needs of new staff. 

Looking to the future

Now the project has closed, EE says it highlights the need to provide a continuous wrap around support provision for young people that Empowering Enterprise has over the last few years; many resources don’t provide the breadth or personal approach. 

However, it adds that in a society where mental health services are under strain with long waiting lists, employers are struggling to recruit, and with a high number of young people NEET or at risk of becoming so, it is clear there is an ongoing need for quality, longer-term support. 

It adds that mentors are unique in their ability to play a key role in allowing young people to lead fulfilling lives, by providing wellbeing support, advocacy, career advice and importantly working to instil confidence in individual’s strengths, aspirations and hopes for the future.

Participant James illustrates this well: “From the moment I signed up, I never felt judged here… I used to be a hermit… But now there is actually emotion in my voice, now I can talk to anyone… And I actually enjoy it! I’m living a life now.”

For more information on the project’s legacy, including a range of resources about "inclusive employment" and more inspiring stories, visit: https://www.devoncommunities.org.uk/resources-supporting-young-people-work and the  YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/@empoweringenterprise2484 .

You can also contact Harry Bonnell, Project Manager: [email protected] .