As George Osborne would have us believe, Britain is a nation on the road to recovery. His case is bolstered by a clutch of positive economic data and the assertion that unemployment has fallen to the lowest level since 2009. Behind these statistics and ‘I told you so’ speeches lies a continuing crisis. One in five young people is unemployed, rising to one in four young Londoners. Young people are in serious risk of the recovery passing them by, even though it is that who pay the price of our halcyon days of easy credit and economy based on the never-never.
The challenge that faces us today is how we can ensure that those who lost the most from the recession do not stand to gain the least from the recovery. How can we guarantee that those young people currently not in education or employment do not remain at the margins of an increasingly buoyant labour market? With recent figures from ONS indicating an increase in the proportion of graduates working in jobs for which a higher educational background is not usually required, it is clear that support for those young people furthest aware from employment remains a pressing concern.
Our current back to work infrastructure is far from being up to the job. It is a mechanism that is tired, clunking, and poorly placed to meet the changing needs not only of young people, but of those who seek to employ them.
The job centre’s jargon of ‘sanctions’ and ‘outcomes’, its new carpets and its touch screen computers cannot mask the fact that it is a system which was established over 100 years ago that has failed to keep pace with our changing economy. A single Job Centre adviser manages an average caseload of 168 individuals, making it little surprise that nearly two thirds of unemployed young people feel that government services are providing them with inadequate support.
We must challenge the logic of herding our young people into high street holding pens in the hope of employment, rather than colleges and the community institutions. We have to accept that the experiment of merging benefits processing and preparation for work has been a failure, and it has failed young people the most. If prisons are schools for crime, then job centres are schools for unemployment; treating young people as claimants to be processed. This experiment has resulted in job centres measuring success not by how many individuals they help into jobs, but how many stop claiming jobseekers’ allowance. This is like a doctor convincing himself that he has cured a patient who has not turned up to his appointment.
Let’s stop sending our young people to high street hubs that have become benefit centres rather than job centres. Let’s stop subjecting our young people to endless obstacle courses that confuse short-term goals with meaningful achievements. Let’s stop forcing our young people to complete training after training and placement after placement, in the pretence that this can compensate for real participation in the labour market.
Let’s abolish Job Centre services for young people, and let those organisations that already work successfully with young people get on with it. Where they are doing a good job, let them spread good practice, where they are not, let others take over. Skills, experience and relationships with employers are not to be found in a high street hub. They are to be found in FE colleges, in work places, in community institutions. Let us allow those organisations that excel in working with young people replace the current system that cannot meet their needs.
Local level into-employment programmes that work with young people and businesses need to be the rule, not the exception. But what if your school does not have a business member on their governing body – as schools in Waltham Forest are encouraged to do? What if your local authority does not have its own job brokerage scheme, such as Work Place in Newham, which matches local young people with local businesses? What if your borough is not concerned with building training contracts and jobs into their procurement guidelines? At a time when local authority budgets are being cut by a third and with no statutory requirement to provide into-employment services and careers advice, we risk increasing inequality between boroughs.
Our young people deserve better than job centres can offer. They deserve better than a service that is the same for all – regardless of age. They deserve a system that can meet a matrix of complex needs, through a service that treats them as individuals, rather than crudely dividing them into payment groups.
We need programmes for young people, designed in consultation with young people, co-ordinated by teams which understand the needs of young people in their area. This means creating an environment where schools and businesses can meet in the middle, with young people at the heart of this relationship. It means supporting organisations who understand the changing needs of specific industries – creative, digital, technical and the role that young people can play in the future of these industries.
Rethinking employment support for young people is about more than reducing the proportion of the cohort who are receiving benefits. It is about bringing in a generation from the cold, at a time when the government would rather stoke the fires of a rhetoric of recovery. It is about ensuring our young people have their own positive role to play in this country’s return to growth, rather than being the first ones into the recession and the last ones out.