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Skills and Employability: How Effective is Our Investment in Youth Unemployment?

Unemployment

Youth unemployment has always been an issue, but now in these times of recession it has risen to stratospheric levels, with almost 1 million 16-24 year olds unemployed in the UK.  This is not an issue we can take lightly. It is no secret that good education, housing and a decent job, have a bearing on how long and how well we live. The effects have recently been delved into with new research by Public Health England Longer Lives website. The research shows that inadequate education and long term unemployment  increase the chances of social exclusion, bad health, mental health issues, relationship breakdown, it affects self-esteem and future employability, leading to crime and long term poverty, and the list goes on.

Amidst a media storm in which young people are painted as wayward, workshy, benefit grabbing and delinquent, the truth about how difficult it is to get into work is often skated over. Aside from the job deficit and the thousands of applications for each position, there is a general lack of support and guidance in identifying and accessing potential opportunities; and a lack of practical skills from basic application writing, interview technique, job preparation and feedback to essential work skills which can really affect a young person’s ability to find paid work. The unemployed are left to flounder.

There have been Government initiatives set up, such as Youth Contract and the EU’s Youth Guarantee Recommendation, which although based on very strong and unarguable principles, they don’t go far enough in their implementation and are not bold enough in their approach to tackle the issue at its roots. The Youth Contract, for instance, aims to support young people to prepare for work and find a job by providing almost half a million opportunities for 18-24 year olds. It also offers a financial incentive to employers worth £2,275 (which can be claimed in arrears) for each young person employed for 16 hours a week or more for a minimum of 26 weeks.  Yet it seems that many business shun the initiative, particularly smaller enterprises. This is not a surprise considering that despite the incentive an employer will still need to find between £1,600 and £2,600 to fund the placement on minimum wage. There is also the staffing commitment to mentor and support the young person in their placement and the bureaucracy (National insurance, tax and administration) associated with any employment contract. It is no surprise that some small to medium business cannot afford to embrace the Youth Contract.

Figures released by the DWP (Department for Work and Pension) last Monday show that the Youth Contract supported a meagre 4,700 young people into work in its first year, a far cry from its yearly target of 53,000 young people. At this rate the programme will miss its overall target by over 90%.

Similar initiatives seem to be working in other countries such as Holland and Germany where unemployment rates are considerably lower than in the UK. It will not come as a surprise that these countries have strong and successful apprenticeship programmes aimed at skilling up young people and prepare them for the work place. Germany provides accessible and easy to administrate apprenticeships with a lesser burden on the organisation to deliver them. Their apprenticeship system has also been ingrained in German society since the 1800s as a way of life with 60% of school leavers undertaking an apprenticeship under their current dual System. The system is taken seriously with apprentices undertaking a final examination to test the standard and prove their achievements at the end of the placement. A real, strong and hearty approach one would expect from our rational German neighbours.  In the UK we live in a paradox where job opportunities requires job experience, yet the opportunities of obtaining such experience are not only few and far between but at times the quality is also questionable and indeed untested.

The issue however goes one step further. In these recession times, an increasing number of businesses relying on short term staffing and people with experience that can hit the ground running, accomplish a task and leave. Here young people with little experience are ‘priced’ out of the market and have no way in.  The education bill moved the statutory duty for career advice to schools and coupled with the significant reduction in youth services, such as Connexions, young people are left with a fragmented support network making it even harder for the current generation to find their way into a career. There are also issue around inflexibility where many charities attempt to provide young people with training and experience opportunities through internships and work placements but are faced with the risk of young people losing their benefits due to restriction in the number of hours they can participate or due to some of the support they may be able to provide, such as expenses cover. These factors are increasing the sense of loss many young people have in themselves, in their lives and in their future.

There is no easy way around the problem and definitely no cheap way of resolving it. It is only by investing now that we will be able to see the human profit in the future. What we need is a ‘lean and mean’ system, where young people can access internships, job placements and training across the country without the risk of losing their benefits. We need opportunities that big and small businesses alike can provide with reduced administrative burden and cost.  Tax relief and a simplified administration would be pivotal for a flexible system that can respond to young people’s needs and provide them with flexibility in gaining experience. We need to review our approach to apprenticeships, make them an integral part of everyone’s learning journey. A reliable, consistent, wide spread and high standard system, not an alternative to main stream education but an integral part of any learning journey. Last but not least, it is essential to re-build a support network that can provide a safety net and direction for young people to help them navigate the world of training, development and careers planning.

The government’s policy has been one focused on cuts but it seems that not all the cuts have been considered in detail and evaluated for their long term effects. Spending cuts are necessary, this may well be a fact. Yet the alternatives put forward don’t always provide a ‘Real’ alternative. Money saving tactics in business and in the public sector are costing our young people their futures. As mentioned in our first blog, with so much emphasis on the here, the now, and the immediate profit/saving, we are leaving our future generations out in the cold and the economy becomes even more precarious than it is today.

More needs to be done. There are no two ways about it.

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