YOUTH unemployment has been a big socio-economic problem in the UK for 40 years.
Whilst it’s now lower than after the financial crash of 2008, the number of young people not in work or education remains higher than in comparable economies.
In the post war period, the UK’s unemployment rate was less than 1 per cent and lower among young adults than older workers. The vast majority of school-leavers went straight into a full-time job after leaving school at 16. Although some ‘churned’ from job to job, this was disguised by the ready availability of work. Youth unemployment remained low.
Young people were, however, strongly affected as unemployment began to grow during the 1970 following the OPEC old crisis of 1973. On Tyneside in 1980 over 25 per cent of 16-18-year olds were ‘on the dole’ - a figure almost three times higher than the overall unemployment rate.
Between 1979 to 1984 youth unemployment in the North east dramatically increased by 150 per cent. In Newcastle 5,000 youngsters were chasing 29 jobs!
Falling profits, automation and the reorganisation of work meant that the number of new jobs was shrinking, particularly in the region’s manufacturing industry. By 1981, the number of apprentices had halved since its mid-1960s peak, when a quarter of male school-leavers got an apprenticeship.
At the time government blamed youth unemployment on the supposed failings of both youngsters and the educational system. Schools it was argued were failing to equip the region’s youth with the skills and dispositions deemed necessary for the workplace.
Strategies to engage unemployed youth in education and work
Subsequently, there have been various strategies to engage unemployed youth in education and work. Training initiatives were based on the assumption that young people lacked the nous to find and keep jobs.
The first of these, the Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP), began in 1978 as a sixth-month scheme for youngsters with ‘low’ qualifications. Initially, eight of 10 who completed YOP found paid work or went on to education or training. But the virtual collapse of the youth labour market meant that roughly half of all sixteen- year olds were on the programme by 1982. By the end of its life only a quarter of YOP trainees found a real job. In the inner- city wards of Newcastle only one in 10 found work.
For the state, any way of reducing or at least concealing, youth unemployment was attractive – both to reduce the headline jobless figures and help keep public order on the streets. For employers, a new programme of government-funded youth training would provide another income stream to help subsidise recruitment. Meanwhile, some young people and their parents welcomed another alternative to the dole.
The Youth Training Scheme was unveiled in 1983 backed by £1b of public money. YTS marked a recognition that the traditional youth job market was in terminal decline. There was a need also for an alternative device in which to regulate the behaviour of young people. But as the Durham University academic Fred Robinson pointed out in his book, ‘Post-Industrial Tyneside’, the social impact of YTS shouldn’t be underestimated. Some employers used school-leavers as cheap labour. Some received little, if any, real training on the scheme.
Those middle-class youth who were able to stay on in full-time education did so. Others chose to remain jobless rather than take a low quality YTS place, although benefit sanctions made this option hard to sustain. As Robin Simmons notes – “the youth training scheme became something of a rite of passage for large sections of working-class youth”.
Although the YOP programme was seen to be a temporary measure to tackle youth unemployment, YTS was to be central to “upskilling the nation’ and help Britain train its way out of recession. High quality it was claimed would lead to its success.
In reality, most YTS placements continued to be in the same shops, offices and small businesses that had provided work placements for YOP. Trainees were meant to get at least 20 weeks off-the-job training on the two- year scheme. In some cases, training was non-existent. None had any basic employment rights. Training allowances of £25 per week were held down below the rate of inflation.
By 1986 over 500,000 young people were on YTS later repackaged simply as YT. About half left the scheme early – some young people were keen to get a ‘real job’, even if it meant going into ‘dead-end work’.
In Tyneside, only 40 per cent were in employment after leaving YT, while the rest found themselves jobless. School leavers were well aware that there were good and bad schemes – the latter regarded as ‘slave labour’ with little training and no job at the end of it.
As Simmons argues the more unscrupulous employers saw them as an inexhaustible ‘pool of free labour’. Certain businesses used YT trainees to displace exiting workers.
We should, however, be careful not to fall into lazy stereotypes about YT. Many reputable employers like British Gas were involved with the scheme and took their duties seriously, often sending trainees on day-release, where they gained recognised high-quality qualifications.
Some companies had a good record in offering young adults permanent jobs at the end of the scheme. Certain YT programmes, often run by ‘blue-chip’ firms, were highly sought after.
By the 1997 government funded New Deal programmes came to replace the discredited YT programme. Youth unemployment fell with most youngsters staying on in formal education till 18.
With the number of NEETS (those not in education, employment or training) rising to 800,000 nationally in 2019 there’s a clear need to address the needs of a significant section of working-class youth.
Dr Robin Simmons is professor of Education at Huddersfield University and author of ‘Education and Working-Class Youth: Reshaping the Politics of Inclusion’
Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor and former YT Tutor
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