Let’s give young people a chance

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Written by Chris Jones on 29 May 2014 in Opinion

There's no quick-fix to the skills shortage problem - it's all about working together, Chris Jones says

Amid poor election results for both Coalition parties, last week there was at least a flicker of good news for the Government. The ONS reported that the number of young people not in education, training or employment (NEETs) has fallen; 13.5 per cent of 16- to 24 year-olds are in this position, down 61,000 on the last quarter.

That means more young people are getting a foot on the employment ladder or working towards a qualification to boost their career prospects. Good news? Sure. But let’s not pat ourselves on the back just yet.

We shouldn’t celebrate that ‘only’ 975,000 young people are NEETs. That’s almost one in eight young people slipping through the net. That’s one in eight who risk becoming unemployed adults.

According to the ONS, more than half of NEETs are looking for work. That means there is the potential to cut this figure in half. The answer lies in long-term solutions – not quick fixes. It’s not just about getting more young people into jobs so that they can be listed as employed on official figures. It’s about supporting them to take the first step into a fulfilling career – whatever that may be.

A foot in the door

So where to start? Well first of all, let’s not close doors that are already open.

The Government recently announced reduced funding for 18-year-olds in full-time education. Starting this September, this change disproportionately impacts FE colleges and students who are trying actively not to become ‘NEET’. Michael Gove described this as the ‘least worst option’ – and the public outcry was notably silent.

Likewise, despite the Coalition’s success of increasing the availability of apprenticeships – I worry some of this risks being undone by the proposed enforced employer fee for 16 and17-year-old apprentices. It is already a struggle to encourage employers to bring young people into their businesses, and I am concerned this will close down another option for young people looking to get a foot in the door.

For young people who are over 19, there are fewer options available, and yet the Government recently announced plans to scrap some 5,000 entry-level adult learning courses. De-cluttering the system is important and something I fully support. But, some of these shorter courses were developed in response to industry and employer needs. Others provide a first step back into work-related training for people who have been alienated from it in the past, and cannot leap directly into more advanced courses.

Left behind

We must also look to the future to prevent another generation of NEETs. In November, we surveyed 1,000 employers and nearly six out of ten told us they struggle to fill vacancies as young people lack the skills they need – both in capability and in behaviours. A recent report by PWC showed that two thirds of firms in the UK think that skill shortages could hinder their ability to expand.

For this reason, we need employers to be more involved in curriculum design and to create better links between the education and business worlds. This is something that there is cross-party support for, which is very encouraging.

Advice for the 21st century

Alongside that, we must get better at telling young people about all the options—not just university, but apprenticeships and other vocational qualifications too. According to the CITB, three quarters of schools visited by Ofsted neglect their legal duty to provide skills advice. This oversight is failing those young people in need of support and advice. How can a young person choose a career path when they are not fully aware of what’s out there?

The AOC and The Skills Show this week called for ‘drastic changes’ to careers advice, suggesting that children be offered practical experience of different jobs or at least the opportunity to engage with employers directly. Schools must work with employers to give young people the knowledge they need.

We need schools to offer careers advice that is relevant to the 21st century. Research City & Guilds conducted earlier this year showed that men are four times more likely to be encouraged to study engineering, while girls are pointed towards careers like nursing. 

Hardly very 21st century, is it? It should be a priority for politicians, business and educators alike to make sure that careers advice focuses on what a young person can – and indeed wants to – achieve. By the time they are 16, they shouldn’t be clueless or confused about their futures.

Better, together

There is no quick-fix to this problem, and it’s not the fault of policy makers, educators, or employers alone. But young people have been let down. We all need to work together to stop the young unemployed becoming the long-term unemployed, and so those in their teens get a better deal.

So what’s the next step? I would be really interested to hear from anyone who wants to work with us to tackle this problem so please get in touch so together we can make a difference.

About the author

Chris Jones is chief executive of the City & Guilds Group


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