Why far too many young people still struggle to find work after education

AFTER a summer-size portion of angst and anticipation, judgement day has finally been and gone. More than 600,000 households across the country will be waking up today with the hangover of GCSE results.

While some will be bounding out of bed, excited about sixth form in September, a drop in top grades and a falling pass rate means a growing number will be forced to abandon their plans and rule out entire careers.

I remember results day well. It has been some eight years since I nervously collected mine and was regretfully told by our maths teacher that I would “never make chancellor of the Exchequer.” It quickly became apparent that I would never cut it as a chemist, nor was I as good at history as I originally thought. Yet none of this really mattered. It was the booming naughties, there were jobs galore and I was buoyed up about my future. For the class of 2013, however, the outlook could not be more different.

It is grim. Youth unemployment is rising, the government’s youth jobs scheme is failing, and figures out yesterday revealed that the number of 16 to 24 year olds not in education, employment or training (NEET) has flatlined at around 1.09m, which is not to be shrugged off.

Not only do we have a duty to protect the vulnerable, but the rewards of doing so will be reaped by us all. Over the last seven days, the Exchequer has paid out more than £22m in benefit payments for NEETs and Britain has missed out on up to £133m in lost output. Frankly, I find it surprising that taxpayers are not up in arms already.

And this is not to mention the devastation of a family torn apart by unemployment. Falling out of the jobs market when you’re young has lasting effects, and a year unemployed before 23 can lead to a 23 per cent income gap ten years on. As citizens, we have a moral obligation to help and a collective duty to make sure that Britain is the best she can be.

We have to get young adults work-ready – not through university, but through training. Around half of school leavers should be taking a work-based course or apprenticeship, like in Germany. Our school leavers are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than their Northern European counterparts. And the Germans, in contrast to the rest of Europe, saw a decrease in youth unemployment during the downturn. To give the government credit where it’s due, it knows that apprenticeships are the most sustainable solution to youth unemployment. It has pushed ahead with important reforms to the system, and the number of apprenticeship starts since 2010 has almost doubled.

The Million Jobs Campaign, which I run, is one of the many organisations that has been boosted by this. Ashleigh, our apprentice, is bright, sparky and has come a hell of a long way. She dropped out of school at 15 without a single GCSE. After a couple of months selling tequila shots on a local high street, she found herself without a job and a bed. Fast forward a couple of years and she’s in Number 10 telling the Prime Minister how tough it was for her. We should have 1m more young success stories like Ashleigh’s, not 1m unemployed.

To this end, the Million Jobs Campaign is working with Pimlico Plumbers around a National Apprenticeship Service. We don’t believe that young people should be allowed to leave school and fall off a cliff into unemployment. Charlie Mullins, founder of Pimlico Plumbers, has a wealth of experience taking on apprentices and giving them the tools to flourish in work. He believes those pupils leaving school after GCSEs should be required to take an on-the-job training scheme. They would be matched with the right business for them, and their Jobseeker’s Allowance would be transferred through the employer in the form of a training wage.

As Mullins says, “the learning continues, just in a different place, and in a way that is arguably more focused on the futures of the individual and that of the economy as a whole.” A National Apprenticeship Service would get young people training and learning, and have a transformational effect on the entire country. It should be a central plank of future welfare reforms.

Combined with a neat cocktail of new tax policies (like scrapping national insurance contributions when an employer hires a young unemployed person), trimming back discrimination laws (so that unsuccessful job candidates can get honest feedback and advice), and changes to the school curriculum (to ensure apprenticeships are actively promoted in schools), we could get to grips with youth unemployment once for all.

Let’s make sure the class of 2014 has more to look forward to.

Lottie Dexter is director of the Million Jobs Campaign. millionjobs.org.uk

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April 22, 2014, 2:25pm