It’s not news that youth unemployment is one of the biggest problems the UK faces. Wednesday’s labour market statistics showed that, while wages and living standards continue to stagnant, at the very least employment is holding up. The same is not true for the young; the youth unemployment rate edged up by 0.1 per cent, and shows no sign of starting to decline. But recent announcements from all political parties, and yesterday’s publication of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s report, show a welcome appetite for the kind of wide-ranging reform needed.
Up to now the post-crisis response to this issue has been just that; a series of temporary measures, including 160,000 wage incentives for firms to hire youth, and three years of funding for work experience places. While apprenticeship numbers have increased, most of the new places have gone to the over 25s. But politicians of all stripes now recognise that what is needed is not just an emergency crisis response, but a more fundamental reconfiguration of the education to work transition. The coalition recently embarked on a wide ranging review of youth spending, Labour has announced a youth guarantee of work or training, and the Conservatives an obligation on young people to be either ‘earning or learning’. While there is still a debate to be had on the specifics of each policy, broadly speaking the Labour and Conservative announcements at least recognise the fact that many young people are too far from the labour market to be expected to find work through the usual Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme offer, and need a more certain back-stop providing up-skilling and real, paid work experience.
Yesterday’s report from Alan Milburn puts some much needed flesh on the bones of this reform agenda, sketching out some practical steps we could take to increase the employment chances of youth, picking up on many of the arguments and ideas suggested by my colleagues at IPPR. Firstly, it recognises that young people are not all alike. For those young people without prior work experience, the report suggests that the state should offer a ‘participation payment’ for those engaging in high quality work placements with training. This would improve the current traineeships policy, which provide a similar offer but with no compensation for the work-based element. For those with some experience of work, it advocates the adoption of a job guarantee to prevent young people staying on out of work benefits.
In addition, it recognises that too many young people leave school and simply drop off the map. A significant proportion of the UK’s NEETs are not claiming any out of work benefits and are therefore difficult to find and reengage. The Milburn report proposes two initial solutions: better monitoring of who is currently NEET and at risk of NEET-hood at a local level will certainly help, as will the introduction of a system similar to UCAS but aimed at those not going to university, in order to better signpost and link young people up with the work and training opportunities available to them.
The youth unemployment problem is still not solved. Much more work needs to be done to ensure that the training options mentioned above are of sufficient quality, and don’t just function as a warehouse for disadvantaged young people. Milburn’s target for half of all firms to be offering apprenticeships and work experience does not solve the currently poor targeting of apprenticeships on young people, and looks very ambitious given our low levels of firm involvement in youth training. But nonetheless we should welcome the fact that youth unemployment is very much still on the agenda, and that there is appetite for the kind of ambitious and wide-ranging reform needed. The current situation, with the labour market starting to recover in earnest but the young very much left behind, is simply not good enough.