Challenging the narrative

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Written by Martyn Sloman on 30 October 2013

Judging by the headlines, the October unemployment statistics should give cause for optimism. The Daily Telegraph pronounced that a "sharp drop in those claiming jobseekers allowance boosts recovery hopes". Even the normally critical Guardian was obliged to comment on a strengthening in the labour market and that "the number of people in work hit a fresh record high of 29.87 million".  However, look behind the headlines and a more worrying picture emerges. For this reason I chose October 17th, the day that the figures were released, to launch my on-line petition calling for a change in the Companies Act.  I believe this to be an essential first step if we are to tackle a chronic and endemic problem of youth unemployment.

Let's begin by looking at those figures. They show that youth unemployment is static at 20 per cent, mark. There are now just under one million unemployed 16- to 24-year olds.  This figure (958, 000) was down by a mere 1000 on the previous quarter with male unemployment increasing marginally. This has happened despite all the talk of green shoots of recovery, the hype surrounding apprenticeships, and the multiplying number of welfare to work schemes. We are giving the next generation a rotten deal. 

A cosy, complacency has emerged based on an incorrect and damaging argument; unfortunately it is also an argument that takes the debate in entirely the wrong direction.

The argument runs thus.  A major contributory factor to youth unemployment is that young school-leavers and young graduates are leaving the education system with the wrong skills, they are badly advised by the careers service, and, further, they display the wrong attitude to work.  If we can fix that, we will go a long way to solving the problem. This appears to be the stance adopted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development with its incessant promotion of its Learning to work campaign. Indeed we seem to be facing endless campaigns based on an implicit premise that the problem of youth unemployment could be solved by a series of linked corporate bob-a-job campaigns.

We need to bust this myth. The problems are more fundamental and deep-rooted. We have an employment problem not a skills problem. In many parts of the country there is a chronic shortage of jobs: many of the traditional entry-level jobs have simply disappeared.  The nearest City to my home is Norwich.  In the 1930s 25 per cent of boys and 33 per cent of girls leaving elementary schools found employment in boot and shoe factories. Another 14 per cent of girls found employment in the cracker and chocolate factories. These unskilled, entry-level, manufacturing job are simply not there any more - and the problem is far more acute in the old coal and steel areas.

A related observation is that people learn their employability skills on-the-job in the workplace. This is particularly true of communications and team working where repeated surveys are pointing to deficient skills amongst our teenagers and twenty-year olds. If there is one thing that we have discovered it is that inexperienced people learn through making mistakes and getting good feedback from a developmental boss.  This is not something that happens in school or college.

Building on this point - and this is more controversial - my view is that not the sole purpose of the education system to produce oven-ready labour for employers.  Education should also be about producing more rounded citizens with self-esteem, a respect for each other and a love of learning. It is for employers to develop the skills needed for effective performance in the workplace.

Finally let me say something on attitude.  Every generation thinks the one below displays a bad attitude. I dare say that in the taverns in Sherwood Forest Robin Hood was grumbling that the young were not spending enough time practising archery and needed remedial training when they joined the merry men.  Certainly, as a graduate of the late 1960s, just below the age eligible for conscription in to the armed forces, I was continually subject to an admonition that: 'A bit of National Service would have done you some good' . 

So more radical solutions are required. I am most grateful to TJ for allowing me this platform to build on the arguments that I advanced in the TJ White Paper "Training and skills in crisis".

My first suggestion is that employers should be required to fulfil broader objectives. In accepting the protection that a modern economy affords them, larger employers should accept obligations for skills development. What I propose is that corporate law, and in particular the Companies Act, should be reviewed to introduce more specific obligations for workforce development, including obligations that reflect wider societal needs. Immediately I am inviting all those who agree with me to sign our on-line petition calling for a change in the Companies Acts.  The link is below.

In future blogs I will look at the policy failure in the opposition Labour Party and the way in which the Coalition partners are relying on hype and promotion to avoid the underlying issues.   

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

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