According to figures recently released by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), the Government is set to fall well short of the target to reduce the number of young people that are not in education, employment or training (NEET).

England's target for 2010 is 7.6 per cent, but the UCU statistics pointed to a figure of 9.3 per cent at the end of 2009, with an expected incline over the first three quarters of 2010.

This new data comes as colleges prepare to save some £433 million as public sector budgets are increasingly squeezed.

Most people would agree that we should be doing everything we can to help the 'lost generation' of NEETs. It's well documented that NEET young people are more likely to commit crimes and become teenage parents, so there's a high social cost as well as a great impact on the economy.

The September Guarantee commits to offering every 16 and 17-year-old the opportunity to continue in education or training, but if NEET young people are not aware of the learning and careers paths that lie in front of them, how can we even start to make that happen?

So, while many colleges and training providers are making significant cuts to their communications budgets, many have recognised that this is precisely the time when effective PR and marketing needs to come to the fore.

But, even more important, it's crucial that budgets are invested in those tactics that are likely to achieve the greatest cut-through and hold resonance with young people that are often deemed 'hard to reach'.

Blackburn with Darwen's Connexions service has recently driven down the borough's NEET figures to an all time low of 6.7 per cent, bucking the national trend.

Blackburn Connexions, delivered by social business CXL, recognises that effective and appropriate communication is paramount in order to successfully engage with young people.

CXL's Partnership Director Liz Larner said: "NEET young people can be difficult to reach.  We've tested various communications methods with them over recent years as part of our work to reduce NEET numbers.

"We've had a good response from direct mail to the young people when marketing events or drop-in sessions.  We are in a fortunate position where we have the data to make direct mail a viable option. We also follow up direct mail activity with text messages to mobile phones, usually a few days before the event and then on the day of the event to remind them to come along.

"As with all event activity, getting the hook right is key to motivating young people to attend. We recently hosted an event in partnership with Blackburn Rovers Football Club, held at their stadium, giving the young people the opportunity to meet the players whilst finding out about the training or employment options available to them from our advisers. We also partnered up with a local radio station to give the event extra kudos amongst young people."

Clearly CXL's approach demonstrates that 'traditional' channels, such as advertising and securing coverage in the media, are unlikely to resonate with NEET young people. Taking a lead from successful fmcg brands may hold some clues for the FE sector. A highly successful campaign, that has tapped into youth culture, is Red Bull. The reasons why their campaigns are so effective are well documented (for more information go to www.mobileyouth.org), but in a nutshell:

  • They adopt grass roots strategies, rather than employ blanket direct mail shots

  • They focus on creation, rather than campaigns – everything they do is about creating a legacy, and they've done that really effectively through their Red Bull Music Academy  - (as opposed to simply sponsoring a music event)

  • Clarity of message - there are no doubts who Red Bull is aimed at - young, adventurous, energetic people

  • They're also clear about their values – they strive to connect with young people on a daily basis

  • Their target audience ie the young people, 'own' the brand

So what can the FE sector do to get on the radar of our NEET generation? Here are my top tips:

  • Think about your marketing as something you do with young people, rather than to them

  • Get out of your office and into the community - talk to young people, ask them how they want to be communicated with

  • Think long term, think engagement, think beyond campaign

  • Use the young people that you're seeking to talk to sense check your plan and your creative execution – run focus groups with them and garner their opinions

  • Young people spend a large proportion of their day online, and social networking is integral to the way they communicate with their peers, so an online strategy is vital and should be seen a pivotal part of your communications plan

  • Use incentives to engage - the example of adding value to an event by giving young people the opportunity to meet sporting heroes, employed by CXL was highly successful.

The truth is that communicating with NEET young people should be viewed as a long term strategy. There are no quick fixes and no hard and fast rules. What works today might not work tomorrow, so the trick is to test new tactics, evaluate those activities that work best and learn lessons along the way.

Good luck!

Angela Smith is managing director of The Write Angle, a PR and marketing agency that possesses strong links with the training and education sector, with clients including the National Apprenticeship Service, Business Link and a range of FE providers.

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