The catch-22 holding back Britain’s youth

Our young people need businesses to take a fresh look at them – and at work experience, writes Crossrail's Valerie Todd.

The UK economy has struggled through recessions and weak recoveries for some time now, with uncertain hints of growth every few months. No one feels the impact of this more than young people, who have fewer opportunities than ever before to find jobs and get into work. There is an urgent need to create more job opportunities for young people, even if our finance teams shake their heads disapprovingly. Not doing so fails ultimately fails everyone.

Word of mouth communication is now the number one recruitment channel for employers. But this doesn’t work well for young people, who haven’t yet had time to build the right contacts, networks and social capital. Recruitment needs to become less about who you know, and more about what you know and what you can do. Otherwise, young people miss out – and so do employers.

Another structural barrier is experience. Contrary to popular belief, most employers who take on young people straight from education find them well prepared for work. Yet most businesses attach great value to experience when recruiting, to the detriment of other qualities such as attitude, common sense and willingness to learn. Lack of experience is the top reason why employers reject young hopefuls’ job applications. And there’s only one cure for it. A job.

Yet other structural changes have meant that the sorts of job where young people used to get their starts have been on the wane.  My first job doesn’t exist anymore. Does yours? With only one in four employers offering work experience and the intense competition for Saturday jobs, young people today are stuck in a catch-22 situation. 

Perhaps what we need is a refreshed understanding of work experience. Work experience needn’t just be a two-week placement in the summer holidays,  Employers can assist young people in a wide variety of ways,  for example through it can also include careers talks, site visits, help with interview technique,  and mentoring. The New Statesman is a great example of creative thinking about work experience.  Recognising that many graduates aren’t able to relocate for an internship, they are trialling "virtual work experience" placements. Editors mentor graduates remotely, working with them to develop their writing and publish articles on the New Statesman website. This kind of flexibility could give employers, especially smaller businesses who are starved of time and resource, more choice around how to build work experience and when and where to host it. It might also mean fewer 16 year-olds whose "work experience" consists of introducing hot water to tea bags. 

The shape of the labour market is also loaded against young people trying to get a job. Although the recession has led to subdued recruitment activity generally, employment in managerial and professional roles has grown by over 900,000 – and this growth is forecast to continue. Unfortunately, employers who specialise in these jobs don’t tend to recruit young people. When they do, they focus on graduates. We need to create more non-graduate routes into this kind of high skill work. Apprenticeships are a huge part of the solution here. Last week was National Apprenticeship Week; hopefully it served to emphasise the benefits apprentices can bring to business. 

At Crossrail, our passion for investing in young people is genuine and runs throughout whole business. Our pre-apprenticeship training, apprenticeship programmes and work placement schemes are creating a new generation of talent not only for Crossrail but for the wider UK construction industry. At TUCA (the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy) in Ilford, we have created a centre of excellence in tunnelling skills that will ensure that UK employees are in demand for major infrastructure programmes all over the world. What I have seen of our young apprentices leaves me with no doubt as to how vital they are to the business. They are enthusiastic, loyal and quick to learn. And, being from a technically minded generation, they are better than most at working with the computers and controls needed in tunnelling and construction.

There are so many challenges for young people trying to get into work today. I believe it’s time for the government, employers, schools and colleges to come together and tackle the youth employment challenge head on. If not, the economy risks losing out on the talent and skills of nearly a million young people. If that’s not bad enough, the consequences for young people themselves will be far more serious and long lasting.

The Crossrail shaft at Farringdon. Crossrail has trained a generation of tunnelling experts. Photograph: Getty Images

Valerie Todd is the talent and resources director for Crossrail.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation