From education to employment

NEET figure still too high

While the latest statistics show that the number of 16 to 24 year olds not in employment, education or training has dipped below the one million mark, the figure is still far too high.

The University and College Union says recent history suggests the number of these so-called Neets is likely to rise this year and that the Government is unlikely to meet its target of reducing the percentage of 16 to 18-year-olds to 7.6 per cent by 2010.

The present recession has hit the young the hardest. The future does not look rosy with big cuts in the public sector expected and the economy resting on a knife-edge. In the longer term young graduates, who at present cannot find work and are saddled with worrying debts, should find employment as the economy recovers. But for those without qualifications the outlook is bleak. The longer they have no experience of work, the harder it will be for them to find it. Unless radical action is taken we could be consigning them to a life on benefits and the inevitable dangers of drifting into crime and drugs or becoming prey to mental health problems.

The UK has the second worst rate among OECD nations for its proportion of 15 to 19 year olds in some form of education or training. The secondary school curriculum is patently failing to engage the interest of a significant group of teenagers and the alternatives are limited.

So how do we do we break this stubborn cycle?

The TUC and unionlearn have given their support to the Young Person’s Guarantee which aims to give every 18 to 24 year old who has been out of work for six months a six-month offer of a job, work-focused training or a place on a community taskforce. And Apprenticeships could and should be part of the solution. The Government deserves congratulation for their massive recent expansion. Despite the recession, the total number of Apprenticeships is at a record level, though the number of young apprentices has slightly declined.

But many of the NEETs do not have the qualifications or indeed the organisational skills to even apply for an Apprenticeship. That is why unionlearn is working with FE colleges and employers in the Midlands on pilot pre-Apprenticeship courses. The students will learn how to prepare for the world of work. Lessons in writing job applications, learning appropriate dress codes and becoming familiar with alarm clocks will be taught alongside the skills of carpentry, plumbing, food preparation, warehouse skills and transportation. But it is going to be tough. When one of the colleges in an employment blackspot initially opened its doors for registration for the course, only two teenagers turned up.

This is a group which has dropped out from an early age. That is why it is vital for there to be a concerted effort to develop a more co-ordinated response by Connexions, Jobcentre Plus and other agencies to identify and persuade these young people the need to take up such studies.

Employers should play their part too. While there are many leading employers who do work hard to help NEETs, too many do not. Part of the problem in the UK, compared to other nations, is the weak state of social partnership between, employers, unions and government. Across Europe, employers are far more engaged in working with schools, developing good Apprenticeship schemes and providing attractive employment options for local young people. More such social partnership in the UK would mean fewer NEETs. Too many employers shirk their responsibilities to young people; too many think all NEETs have a record of truancy and poor attitudes; too many are not prepared to help give disadvantaged young people the help they need.

Politicians talk about tough choices. But there is no choice: high youth employment is never a price worth paying.

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

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