Taking on the job of tackling youth unemployment

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Written by Elizabeth Eyre on 1 May 2014 in Interviews

Elizabeth Eyre talks to Geraint Johnes, The Work Foundation's new director, about skills and employability.

Employability has become a headline issue in the UK since the financial crisis of 2008 precipitated a recession that has seen unemployment rates rocket around the world. And it’s no longer one that’s confined to the long-term unemployed – young people’s employability skills are now being scrutinised more than they have ever been as school- and university-leavers bear the brunt of rising unemployment.

The national discussion about how to get youngsters into work has centred on the skills they have when leaving education, which make them ready for the workplace, and how employers can work more closely with educational institutions to improve those skills.

But while employers are criticising young people for lacking soft skills such as teamwork, communication and self-management, they are coming under fire themselves for not supporting young people or connecting with them strongly enough to give them a realistic and valuable insight into what is actually required of them.

This contentious issue, which appears to have trapped young people, employers and the education system in a three-way blame game, is a priority for The Work Foundation’s new director, Professor Geraint Johnes, as he takes the London-based think tank into an economy that is beginning to come out of recession but facing skill shortages and high unemployment.

Johnes takes over from previous director Will Hutton and comes from Lancaster University, which bought TWF when it was declared insolvent in 2010. A labour economist, he was dean of graduate studies and professor of economics at LU until moving to TWF this year. He researches labour economics, and has a particular interest in the economics of education. He was founding editor of the journal Education Economics, and has written or edited numerous books and articles in this area, including The Economics of Education (Macmillan 1993) and the International Handbook on the Economics of Education (Edward Elgar 2004).

“A lot of the work I’ve done has been on the impact of education on people’s trajectory through the labour market,” he tells me in a recent interview for TJ, explaining why he’s taken on the role of director of TWF. “I’ve also been looking at issues like ethnic and gender discrimination, so my concern about disadvantage and the destiny of young people who make the transition into the labour market make a clear match with the Foundation’s concerns.”

Youth unemployment, he says, is a problem across the UK. In the north east of England, for example, young people are “really, really struggling” to get jobs. “It’s interesting to look at what’s special about these areas and what we need to do to address those problems.”

He points out that there are areas of the country where young people particularly are disadvantaged, which may have something to do with “collateral” societal issues such as the ease with which people can use public transport: “If you’ve got greater dispersion of population, if young people are living further away from employment opportunities, transport links may not work in the favour of those who disproportionally need to use public transport.

“There are collateral issues in some regions of the country where young people seek opportunities in the area where they’ve grown up – if they don’t see those opportunities there, their aspirations are dampened and that creates a vicious circle.”

It’s not only employers who have been criticising young people’s work-readiness, however – this year has seen high-ranking politicians make very public pronouncements about perceived youthful laziness, lack of workplace skills and unreasonable career development expectations. No doubt they were speaking with the best of intentions, not to mention substantial historical precedent, but Johnes points to the seriousness of politicians “curtailing [the] ambitions and dreams” of a group of people who are a “terrific potential resource for the country” at a time when we need to be addressing quite serious skills gaps in a number of economic sectors.

He says: “To seek to make them satisfied with jobs that are necessary jobs within the economy, to seek to make people satisfied with less than what their talents can deliver doesn’t seem to be the way to maximise the potential of our economy.”

He emphasises that the entry-level jobs that young people were being urged by a government minister earlier this year to take, rather than expecting to be immediately earning six-figure salaries or becoming celebrities, are necessary and have to be done, and that young people “shouldn’t think they’re above doing them”, but they shouldn’t lower their aspirations.

Employers have a number of responsibilities in tackling youth unemployment, he believes, and need to look carefully at the role they play. He points to research carried out by TWF into young people’s views of their experiences of the labour market. The think tank has done a lot of work with fast-food chain KFC, a significant employer of young people in the kind of entry-level jobs being talked about, and has discovered that young people have “strong views” about the support they receive in entering the job market and maximising their potential.

“We have large numbers of young people who feel that they need more support in applying for jobs – 65 per cent; 39 per cent feel that employers don’t understand the needs of young people; 58 per cent believe the government is not doing enough to help them find work,” Johnes reveals.

“I don’t think young people are wishing for unrealistic things or not using skills they already have. I think the infrastructure is lacking. The firms themselves want to recruit people – they want to recruit young people – but the advice they offer in putting together good applications etc isn’t there, especially from large companies that have their supply chains. These big firms have a social responsibility to be working with their supply chains in all sorts of ways; in terms of training, for example, they give apprenticeships etc. They could, as part of their commitment to CSR, provide advice to youngsters about how best to present themselves in the labour market.”

Johnes says there is “a job to be done” by business and the education sector to tackle the issue of employability, especially in relation to young people. The world has changed over the past two decades – knowledge has become cheap and skills in relation to knowledge have gained much more currency; the education system has failed to adapt to this change and needs to work much more closely with employers.

“I think that extends to education quite broadly,” he says. “We need to re-examine the relationship between education and business at all levels. I’m not pointing the finger in any way here – business and education equally need to address this issue, facilitated by government.”

There needed to be a “long-term relationship” developed between organisations and universities, which were “almost like ships that pass in the night”, despite the amount of work that does go on involving the two. For example, educational establishments should do more to retain the relationships they build with organisations during executive development programmes.

“We need to work on establishing a link between universities and business that almost makes the boundaries between the firm and the university disappear,” he says. “We need a greater degree of integration.”

Meanwhile at a secondary level, work experience opportunities for students need to be improved, which demands a deepening of the relationship between schools and business. Says Johnes: “Work experience is currently patchy. A lot of it is effectively box-ticking. I think a lot of the institutional framework we’ve got around secondary education doesn’t necessarily help us here. I’d like to see some space generated [within the national curriculum] for schools to work with businesses to establish what the business needs are, particularly within the locality of the school, and really establish what the skills are that the local community needs.”

The idea that skills attract a greater premium needed more focus from secondary schools. It was a challenge for them from a pedagogical viewpoint, however, because teaching someone how to do something was very different to teaching them how to behave in a particular way – which is the basis of the soft skills required in the workplace.

“The skills thing goes right down to primary level. A lot of the things that companies complain [that young people lack] are basic skills that are taught at primary level. A lot of secondary schools’ problems with their pupils’ numeracy skills, for example, start in primary school. It’s a reality that shouldn’t be swept under the carpet.”

Johnes also believes the careers service could be “usefully improved” in order to tackle the issue of youth unemployment. The work TWF has done with KFC demonstrates that youngsters who do not have the clear career pathway of further/higher education and then a job “feel a little bit at sea” about their employment prospects and need more support. “The careers service is there and is giving them some support but it may not be the only place from which they should be expecting support. The larger firms have a role to play here – they are more in tune with the skills that are required and could help provide them.

“Now is precisely the time to be thinking about this issue because of the needs of young people,” he says. “We’re pulling out of recession. Businesses have needed to be very careful with the resources they have been spending. Now they need to expand; they need to recruit more people; they need to invest in the groups within the population from which they are likely to recruit.”

The hollowing out of the job market – the stripping away of middle-ranking jobs to leave only high- and bottom-end jobs – since the recession had created a challenging environment for those young people who did not see their future within further or higher education. “We need to accept this is happening but also that there will consistently be some issues at the bottom end of the labour market. We need to equip young people to enable them to navigate the jobs market.

“This disparity that we’re observing between those who can chart a comfortable course through their careers and those who cannot will widen. The Foundation will have things to say about that and a voice to be heard in terms of that and the experience we have had over the recession.

“It’s been an extremely interesting economic episode, because the banks are knocked out; that prolongs the recession because investment doesn’t recover quickly. We’re now recovering quite strongly but the nature of the recovery has implications for the labour market that were not experienced during previous recessions – real wages have fallen and productivity has been as flat as a pancake. Usually they pick up really quickly because employers lay off their least productive workers but this time that didn’t happen.”

Integrating business with the education system was one solution to the challenges posed by this lack of productivity.


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