Michael Houlihan, CEO, Generation UK

The jobs crisis for young people is reaching a tipping point – with fresh reports suggesting that unemployment amongst 16- to 24-year-olds could be in the millions within weeks. The risk is the creation of a ‘Covid generation’ that struggles to find work, with future projections offering limited cause for optimism.

New research from Bath University has found that the combination of the end of furlough – now extended until March – the scarcity of new positions and the arrival of school and college leavers into the jobs market will create the perfect storm. Increased supply and falling demand, painting a bleak economic picture for Britain’s young people.

It’s clear something needs to change. We are currently undergoing one of the biggest shifts in our economic make up in generations. A culture of reskilling, adapting and learning is going to be key in managing this change.

The Government has responded, with its increased support for apprenticeships and introduction of the Kickstart scheme, as well as recently announcing an ambitious education programme for adults with fewer than two A-levels – promoting the value of lifelong, meaningful learning.

But whilst the government initiatives are welcomed, their success will be judged by the route from education to employment.

Certain sectors are projected to see growth in light of the current circumstances – including healthcare, the green sector, logistics and tech. More than 1,000 of the UK’s greenest businesses will share a £134m government funding packing to drive productivity, create new jobs and develop new technologies for tackling climate change. Meanwhile, 90,000 jobs are being advertised a week in the tech sector, according to Tech Nation.

The digital jobs revolution was knocking at the door for a long time, but now the COVID-19 pandemic has swung it wide open.

Therefore, when we talk seriously about the future of work, technology takes centre stage. The question that has emerged in recent weeks is how best we support people looking to find work in our innovation sectors?

It is no secret that transitioning more people into tech and ensuring that it is an attractive employment prospect for our young people will be critical to the success of current efforts. And there are number of things we need to get right.

The investment from central government into both the Lifetime Skills Guarantee and Kickstart Scheme will need to be effectively deployed at a local level. That means ensuring that all of society has access to the programmes and courses to help them enter the digital economy. This is an opportunity for ‘levelling-up’ and reducing the ‘digital divide’ in this country, not on paper but in practice.

To turn government ambition into a reality for young people, we must ensure that the training programmes available to them are orientated around the digital skills which employers need – the skills that can actually unlock opportunities in the marketplace. Furthermore, those from disadvantaged backgrounds will be worse hit by the unemployment crisis and so we must specifically support these communities with retraining and upskilling in the segments of the economy where we do see growth.

For example, we at Generation UK have collaborated with organisations like WhiteHat to provide Londoners from disadvantaged backgrounds with a six-week free coding programme to teach them the basics when it comes to software engineering and data science. It’s all about building upon the students’ awareness and eagerness to learn and creating a ‘growth mindset’. In the rapidly-changing tech sector this will help them achieve success. This success comes not only in the form of securing their first job, but also in establishing a mindset that will be critical for years to come, with an ongoing need to adapt and upskill.

Whilst the unemployment picture currently looks worrying – there are stories of rapid, promising growth and sectors in need of talent. Cloud technologies, cybersecurity and robotic process automation are all areas that have continued to grow even in the depths of lockdown. The outlook for certain other sectors is improving still. We must be alive to the current commercial vacancies and closely align training efforts with industry. Young people often just need to be given a chance and the picture needs to be demystified – they will then run with the opportunity.

Creating a nation of digital talent is not just a government problem. It is essential that stakeholders across the board – those that underpin the UK tech jobs market – play their part. Entrepreneurs, businesses, government, charities, and social enterprises can all share resources and contribute to helping people from floundering industries into tech. Business leaders must recognise their responsibility in this, and there is a real business case for them to take the lead, contribute and shape the programmes around the skills they need. There are thousands of capable, talented employees out there who have been made redundant as a result of this crisis and as a result of sectoral shifts.

We have the opportunity in times of great change to ‘build back better’ – in terms of education, skills and employment, this is definitely the case. Collaboration between government and business can enable a more accessible jobs market and will ensure positive growth in the industries of the future.

Michael Houlihan, CEO, Generation UK

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