Youth unemployment a main concern at all party conferences
Thumbing through the party conference fringe guides over the last three weeks, one thing became clear – youth unemployment (and the allied issue of vocational education) is the hot topic of the season. I estimate that a third of fringe events were addressing this subject. Not only this, but they were among the best-attended events at all three major conferences – ours, entitled “Lost In Transition” were standing room only.
Helping young people make a successful transition from school to work (a concept we have brought to promince with our research and which we’re pleased to see gaining traction in the debate) is a key concern for Impetus-PEF, so we were delighted to see cross-party recognition that one million unemployed young people is a scandal, and one that will have far-reaching consequences. Evidence shows that any period of unemployment depresses an individual’s future chances of sustained work, and that this effect increases the longer the unemployment last.
Between me and a colleague, we managed to attend the majority of these events – though we couldn’t have done them all without cloning ourselves. So what did we learn? It was fascinating to hear that in Switzerland, two thirds of young people take up a vocational qualification at 14, and that 40 years of a consistent policy approach to vocational education has reaped Germany rewards – in stark comparison to the UK, where repeated policy change has led to confusion amongst teachers, pupils, and employers.
It was inspiring to hear from employers about the huge number of diversely skilled people they need when kicking off new projects in the UK – less so to hear their fears that they would not be able to find the workers they needed in the UK. It was heartening to hear Stephen Twigg say that Labour’s strategy on school–to-work transition must be local this time – local solutions for the differentiated labour markets in different parts of the UK. This is something we have repeatedly called for.
Optimists like me could see possibilities in the Conservatives’ “workfare” plans (after all, our portfolio organisation Resurgo Trust meets potential beneficiaries in Job Centres, and uses this contact to enrol them in transformative programmes) – but it remains to be seen whether the resources will be available to ensure that mandatory daily attendance at Job Centres will contribute anything to someone’s employability.
This groundswell of interest in the issue must be seen as part of a long-overdue conversation with policymakers, not a sign that we can all move onto the next issue. The recession has added piquancy to a long-standing structural problem – that around 300,000 young people each year fail to transition from school to work, and that this has terrible consequences for them, and for society. Economic growth won’t solve this issue: only careful policy attention to the neglected, underfunded, and misunderstood areas of vocational and skills education, careers advice and guidance, and employers’ willingness to take on young people can do this. It is great to have all three parties looking the right way – we’ll be working hard to make sure they stay focussed.