In the early 80’s I was at an education conference where someone was talking about youth unemployment and the devastating impact it was having in his community in the North East – his words still ring in my ears “that time is lost and it’s lost forever”. At least in those days there was still a youth service which was geared up to work with those young people but today it’s not just nothing to do, it’s also nowhere to go. The energy, creativity and joy of being young is being crushed, not only is that productive time lost to the young people themselves, it’s lost to all of us.
Currently 20% of our young people don’t have a job and even more concerning is that this leaps to 50% among black young men. Recent research found that a third of the young unemployed were depressed and rarely left the house and 40% didn’t feel part of society.
In September we will be debating the Nick Clegg Danny Alexander Economy motion, not a lot to like from my perspective, but there is one proposal I strongly support. The motion recognises that the government is having little success in tackling youth unemployment, committing to “Take radical action to tackle stubbornly high youth unemployment by developing a comprehensive strategy for 16- to 24-year-olds ensuring that all young people have access to the skills, advice and opportunities necessary to find sustainable employment.” Last year I was happy to summate on Jo Swinson’s “Giving Young People a Future” motion which sought to build on the Youth Contract and picked up on some of the flaws in the current policy, for instance the importance of guaranteed access to careers advice.
But things have moved on from then and it is clear that the need to take that radical action and develop that comprehensive strategy is urgent.
So what needs to happen to prevent a “lost generation” and ensure the Youth Contract along with the welcome investment in apprenticeships, does more than scratch the surface?
As Liberal Democrats we are, and always have been, committed to the idea of localism, people have a much better grasp at a local level of how to tackle the problems in their area. So the news, reported by CYP Now last week that where the Youth Contract is devolved to local councils it is more successful by a ratio of 2:1 in getting young people into work, should give us pause for thought.
CYP Now also found that the wage supplement element of the Youth Contract isn’t working, only 4,690 payments of £2,275 having been made with a target of 160,000. This has lead to calls from a number of organisations for a rethink. Liam Preston, policy and parliamentary officer for YMCA England, saying “The figures are disappointing and staggeringly low compared to their intended success rate.
“The Youth Contract was held up as the flagship programme to end the youth unemployment crisis and this announcement would suggest that wage subsidies do not go far enough in ensuring those who are long term unemployed are able to get back into work quickly.” There is clearly an urgent need to consider using that funding more effectively.
At the weekend Vince Cable attended the UK Youth Parliament and urged young people to become entrepreneurs as a way to beat the recession. Well said Vince! But of course many young people will need much more than a start up loan to get them going.
My view is that the over-riding principle that must underpin any new strategy is the need to take a holistic approach and most importantly, to listen to young people and those who work with them. At the moment the Youth Contract offers a few pieces in the jigsaw, which may be enough for some young people, but not all. Considering the whole picture means appreciating that a one size fits all approach won’t work. Our most vulnerable young people need a lot more support, with 11 young people applying for every apprenticeship many will fall through the net – and with a deficit in the jobs market of some 2 million, the approach has to take account of how to keep them motivated as well as seeking to equip them for work. Sadly one of the key services devoted to supporting these young people is largely missing – another example of where one policy – cutting the youth service – impacts on the success of another – the youth contract.
So there’s much to do. My advice is that there should be an urgent Youth Summit, involving unemployed young people and those who work with them, to begin to thrash out the strategy Clegg and Alexander are calling for. Politicians and civil servants should be welcome to come and listen and learn – but apart from perhaps a few nice words to open proceedings, otherwise hold their peace.
Linda is a former youth worker and blogs for Children and Young People Now magazine on youth issues