Are we being fair to young people?

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Written by Martyn Sloman on 2 July 2014

Three years ago I stood for election as a District Council candidate for the Mundesley division in North Norfolk. Mundesley is a pleasant village on the coast full of retired people who think the world was a much better place in the 1950s.  The local Labour Party, of which I am a member, decided it would contest every seat in the District and asked me if I would be prepared to stand.  As a Cardiff Rugby supporter I love lost causes so I consented. 

The other Labour Candidate in the two-member division was a young student at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Daniel Spencer, whose father was an active party member.  The weather was fine so Daniel and I enjoyed a couple of afternoons delivering leaflets in the sunshine to streets off the promenade and I got to know him quite well.  He was a fine young man with decent aspirations. We were unsuitable candidates for the area, a view shared by the electorate.  Daniel and I secured just over 200 votes with the winning Conservatives polling 900.  Our only surprise was that we’d managed to get to 200.

I saw Daniel again this May when I met him at a social event. In turned out at that he had subsequently graduated with an Upper Second Class Honours in Politics. He initially wanted to find work with a company engaged in political and social research but recognised that his lack of relevant work experience would be a handicap.  Following the standard advice given to people in his situation, his next step was to seek an internship.  UEA runs a programme to assist students in finding paid internships. However, as he put it: “Understandably there is a lot of competition for these places and I can’t think of anyone I know from University getting one.”

He was fortunate that family circumstances allowed him to live at home so he decided to find any sort of local job to cover living expenses and try to save for future relocation to London.  Again in his own words: “It would take me nearly eight months and over 200 local job applications before I was employed in my first job.”

He is now working on two part-time seasonal jobs; both promise all the hours he can manage the busy summer months before customer demand falls off in the autumn.  As a result, he is working six days a week, sometimes for two employers on the same day.  Daniel offers a good example of the rural dimension of the youth employment problem.  The jobs that are available are limited, seasonal and often physically exhausting.  Given all this I found him to be amazingly robust and cheerful.  His view is that he is happy just to be in work for the moment.

Now the careers service as most of us knew it no longer exists: it has been largely replaced by a series of websites. To assist in my ongoing research I asked Daniel to test this system.  In some respects his experience was better than I expected.  There was a lot of information available but information is not the same as job opportunities.  

So currently Daniel is sticking in and hoping for better times. My guess is that it something will turn up eventually. His persistence will produce something that suits him and he will enjoy and value it more because of his previous experiences.

However, the question my generation should ask ourselves is whether it young people like Daniel should be forced to go through such a demoralising and exhausting process at his stage in life.  I cannot help but contrast his position with mine at the same age.  I was a year into a worthwhile management trainee job at the National Coal Board and felt optimistic about my future. 

If we care, and wish to construct new policies, the starting-point for our analysis must be to recognise what has changed: a range of powerful economic forces (global, technological and structural) have eliminated the number of entry-level jobs for school, college and university leavers.  A July 2012 UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) report offered an excellent analysis, but feeble solutions, and depressingly stated: “The conclusion from all of the above is that the labour market has changed for young people and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.” [i]

We owe Daniel’s generation an honest analysis of the problem, and a serious effort to come up with a solution. We must construct new policies for the transition to work and these should feature prominently in the debates at the 2015 General Election. I’m therefore delighted to say that TJ will be publishing my personal analysis and suggestions in the form of a paper on NEETs and apprenticeships, due to appear early in September.  I hope that it will have some modest impact.

About the author
Martyn Sloman is a visiting professor at Kingston Business School and a teaching fellow at Birkbeck College. He is principal consultant to TJ's L&D 2020 project and can be contacted at martynsloman@me.com

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