Talking to young people at my last jobs fair wasn’t the most cheerful of experiences. Even though London’s labour market is stronger than that in many other parts of the country, again and again the message came through: “no-one gives us a chance”.
Whilst young graduates bemoan the lack of opportunities for them, after all their education, by far the most dispiriting stories were told by those for whose paths hadn’t taken them to university. Short-term work placements if they are lucky. Rejections piled up if they aren’t. Worse still, a deafening silence in response to hundreds of job applications. More competition for apprenticeships than for Russell Group universities. And, depressingly poor experiences of the Job Centre system as it now is, which few felt offered much by way of advice and practical support and too often treated them as if they’d done something wrong rather than as people the system had let down.
Take Gary, whose poor health contributed to him leaving school six years ago without essential GCSEs. He has had three periods of fixed term employment since, and has been on JSA for a year. Or Tariq, who just missed getting his Maths GCSE, had a bad start to 6th form, went off the radar for a while, and at 19 can’t find a way back to getting into engineering. Or Sam, whose poor quality ‘apprenticeship’ simply dumped him back on JSA after nine months.
Young people, whose precious energy and optimism should be cherished, all too often feel rejected by a system which wants them off benefits — quite rightly, but is doing far too little to offer any decent alternative.
To add insult to injury, the benefits system is structured so as to make it harder, not easier, for young people to gain the skills and qualifications they may not have been able to get first time round at school. 7 in 10 young people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance have skills below level three, but are prevented by benefit rules from training while looking for jobs. Yet this still ends up costing a large amount of public money: a young person out of work unemployed for a year costs over £2,000 a year in lost earnings, tax, and extra benefits.
So Labour rightly wants to put a renewed focus on the 50 per cent of young people who don’t go to university, especially the significant numbers amongst them who lack basic skills and are most likely to find themselves re-cycled between unemployment and work which offers little by way of pay or future development potential.
To do this well needs a fundamental change.
Instead of seeing young people as part of two distinct groups, those bound for university and the rest — we need to see more of a continuum, with education, training and skills for work as the default position for everyone up to the age of 21.
Instead of an adult benefit system which does far too little for those lacking qualifications and in greatest need of help, a support allowance, means-tested in a way that mirrors access to student finance.
And all underpinned by new measures that will to make gaining skills easier, a new approach to vocational qualifications, and our Jobs Guarantee, which makes the offer of work but demands that work be accepted.
Of course there will be have to be provision for exceptions. Some young people cannot stay at home because of chronic overcrowding, abuse, or a total breakdown in family relations. People like Michael, who has recently been diagnosed with a mental health condition, or Maryam, who fled domestic violence. The family home is not always a safe or realistic option.
But for most of the young people moving off and on unemployment benefit, the answer is not more of the same, but a totally different way of doing things.
A way that develops their skills, gives them another chance, and puts them on the path to a decent job.
A way that doesn’t write them off but realises their potential.
I think the young people I speak to would see that as offering them a better future.
Karen is Labour MP for Westminster North and Parliamentary Private Secretary to Ed Miliband. Before entering Parliament she worked in the field of employment for the disabled. In 2010 she was Child Poverty Action Group’s MP of the Year – for her work on welfare reform and child poverty.