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A million reasons to work together

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In Britain we are suffering from an acute crisis of youth unemployment. Nearly a million young people are currently unemployed, and this will have far reaching effects not just on their current lives, but on their future careers and prospects. It is also extremely damaging to the UK economy.

Much more needs to be done to alleviate this crisis. Last week, unionlearn held a conference to discuss some new research we have produced jointly with the University of Warwick looking at ways the government, businesses and unions can work together to do so.

Seeking inspiration from abroad, we looked at countries that have focused on strengthening the mechanism through which governments can help young workers – particularly through training and apprenticeships. It was clear there was provision to balance the interests of employers, unions and the state. This collective regulation helps ensure strategic planning for workforce development as the economy changes. They also ensure that there is agreement on the quality of work and training provided.

These systems are invested in by employers, but this investment is encouraged by government – either through tax relief or subsidies. It is telling that in all these countries where such shared investment exists, these vocational routes into employment are generally regarded as prestigious. This is because they have buy in from all aspects of the social partnership between unions, employers and government.

The report has a series of recommendations for all aspects of working life, from policy ideas to employer engagement schemes. Central to all of these is an approach that further involves employers and unions in the development and implementation of policy around skills and employment. As the evidence suggests, it is when the employers, governments and the workers- (through their representative unions) are working together that policy has buy-in from everyone and is most likely to make a real difference.

One of the key proposals is to use innovative procurement techniques to increase and improve the quality of learning opportunities for young people. As Conservative MP Robert Halfon, a speaker at the conference, highlighted an innovative scheme being used at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Since July 2011, the DWP have inserted a clause in all of their contracts, which asks Contractors and Sub-contractors to “take all reasonable steps to ensure that 5 per cent of their employees are on a formal apprenticeship programme.” There is no formal requirement to do so, and there is no penalty for failure – other than the contractor must write a letter to the Secretary of State, explaining the reasons that they have missed the target. So, it is light touch, but Iain Duncan-Smith has had a success rate of at least one apprentice employed for every £2 million of procurement spend. As a result there are now 2,000 new apprentices are now employed in the Department’s supply chain.

Unionlearn – alongside Mr Halfon – are now asking why this is not being rolled this out across Whitehall? Or advised as good practice to the wider public sector?

Finally, it is not just a case of supplying more apprenticeship opportunities, but of making sure they are the right kind of opportunities consisting of good quality training that will lead to real employment opportunities. Involving unions in the design of work experience programmes to ensure young people gain the skills they need for sustainable employment.

If the government, employers and the unions can work together, we have the opportunity to make a lasting difference that will help not just this cohort of young people, but will create a sustainable system that will help to rebalance the economy and ensure it works for all young people.

Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and skills organisation

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