Nearly, but not quite

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Written by Martyn Sloman on 4 December 2013

Think tanks are a modern phenomenon that have emerged to have a major influence on politicians of all persuasions. The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is a determined advocate of a neoliberal philosophy based on the market system: "society's problems and challenges are best dealt with by individuals, companies and voluntary associations interacting with each other freely without interference from politicians and the state" to quote from its website. It is challenged from the centre-left by the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research), whose mission is: "to assist all those who want to create a society where every citizen lives a decent and fulfilled life, in reciprocal relationships with the people they care about".  In our area of training and skills another important body is the Work Foundation, originally the research arm of the Industrial Society but now part of Lancaster University.

Youth unemployment or NEETS (16- to 24-year-olds currently not in employment, education or training) is a topic of major social, economic and - as we head towards a general election - political concern. Not surprisingly, the think tanks have issued a whole series of perspectives on the problem.  They have been variable in quality but one that has just been published is of particular merit. This is an IPPR publication entitled No more NEETs. It is ambitious in scope and carries the subtitle 'A plan for all young people to be learning or earning'. The strength of the document lies in the quality of research and clarity of argument.  Moreover the IPPR is not dependent on direct government funding and can achieve a speed to market (publications are right up to date); sadly this has been lost in the University sector where academic papers can take years to appear.  

No more NEETS is powerful in its ambition and correct in its fundamental analysis. It sets out a strategy to fix what it describes as "a broken school-to-work transition system" which has been "exacerbated by labour market shifts that have squeezed out the type of jobs that enabled those in previous generations who decided not to go to university to embark on successful careers" . Amen to that. If we could get George Osborne, Vince Cable and Ed Miliband to accept this statement of the problem, we would have made massive strides.

The publication offers a range of solutions.  It advocates devolution of responsibility for delivery to local areas - but here it concentrates overmuch on the larger cities. A most compelling recommendation concerns the introduction of a new youth allowance. Graeme Cooke, the report's author, demonstrates how financial benefits for NEETs have grown in a haphazard fashion so "a new youth allowance should replace existing out-of-work benefits… conditional on participation in purposeful training or extensive job search. Access to inactive benefits should be closed off for all but a small minority" .

The weakness of the report is evident when the author considers the place of employers. Here I can't help but feel that the new generation of politicians, advisers, researchers and academics simply lack any practical awareness of how firms view and manage training - of what motivates them to invest the considerable time and effort needed for skills development. It is the economic drivers that matter and these depend on the context in which the business operates.

Like so many other recent proposed solution to NEETs, IPPR report demands a huge increase in the number of apprenticeship and trainee places. In fairness an original suggestion is offered: "To increase opportunity and drive employer engagement, large firms that do not offer apprenticeships for young people should pay a 'youth levy' to train and prepare the future workforce". My view is that this proposal is impractical - in my TJ White Paper I advocate a change in the companies acts to create a new framework in which employers accept social obligations for skills development. 

However, as things stand we will be moving forward with an increasingly shallow definition of apprenticeships, and we will be groaning under the weight of a multiplicity of schemes. Watch out for a litany of exploitation, inefficiency and the occasional scandal when the new Traineeship Schemes gains momentum. Well done to the IPPR for nudging the debate in the right direction. If they had consulted some practitioners who are working in business, their publication would have been even more valuable. 

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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