This paper is based on findings from a longitudinal study of 20 young people who have spent significant periods of time categorised as NEET (not in education, employment or training). Drawing on 3 years of ethnographic research conducted across two local authorities in the north of England, it focuses on the lived experience of a set of young people as they move between various sites of exclusion and participation in the labour market. Central to the paper are the experiences of three individuals and their attempts to begin work in the retail, care and catering industries. The paper illustrates a range of tensions between the aspirations of young people and the opportunities open to them. It provides a critical insight into some of the conditions which characterise work on the fringes of the labour market and the interplay between these and the attitudes, values and dispositions of the young people taking part in the research. The paper's findings challenge popular discourses about young people on the margins of participation and pose questions about the articulation between education, work and training for those seeking to enter the labour market.