FE Voices

Stephen Lambert, writer and Newcastle City Councillor.

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JUST THE JOB

YOUTH unemployment has been a big social problem in the UK for 40 years. Whilst it's lower than after the financial crash of 2008, the number of young people out of work remains higher than comparable economies. 

Yet according to the Institute of fiscal Studies COVID-19 it's having a disproportionate impact on the job prospects of a group that was more disadvantaged even before the crisis - young people. Young adults will be the hardest hit, with youth unemployment estimated to reach 27% by the end of the  year. 

After the war Britain's unemployment rate was 1% and lower among young people 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 was low.

Young adults, however, were strongly affected as joblessness began to grow during the 1973 OPEC oil crisis. On Tyneside in 1979 over a quarter of 16 to 18-year olds were ''on the dole'' - a figure three times higher than the overall jobless rate. Between 1980 to 1984 youth unemployment in the North east dramatically increased by 150%!  In Newcastle 5,000 youngsters were chasing just 29 jobs.

Falling profits, automation and the demise of heavy industry meant that the number of new jobs was shrinking in the region's manufacturing industries. By 1981, the number of apprenticeships had halved  since the mid-1960s peak, when over a quarter of male school leavers got an apprenticeship.

At the time central government blamed youth unemployment on the supposed failings go both youngster and the educational system. Schools, it was argued, were failing to provide the region's youth with the skills and personal qualities deemed necessary for the workplace.

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 a job and keep it.

The first of these, the Youth Opportunities Programme, began in 1978 as sixth-month scheme for youngsters with low qualifications. Initially, eight of 10 who completed YOP found paid work or went onto training or further education.

But the virtually collapse of the youth labour market meant that half of all 16-year olds were on the programme by 1982. By the end of its shelf life only a quarter of YOP trainees found a real job. In the inner-city wards of Newcastle one one in 10 found work.

For the Government, any way of reducing or at least concealing, youth unemployment was attractive - both to lower 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 teenagers 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. For Dan Finn, 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, the social impact of YTS shouldn't be underestimated. Some employers used school-leavers a cheap labour. Some got little, if any training on the scheme.

Middle-class youth who were able to stay on in full-time education did so. Others chose to remain jobless rathe rather than take low quality YTS place, although benefit sanctions made this hard to sustain. As the Huddersfield University educationalist Robin Simmons notes - ''the youth training scheme became something as a rite of passage for large sections of working-class youth''.

Although the YOP programme was seen as a temporary measure to tackle youth unemployment, YTS was to be central to ''upskilling the nation'' and help the country train its way out of recession. High quality training 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 20 weeks off-the-job training on the two-year programme. In some cases, training was non-existent. None had basic employment rights. Training allowances of £25 a 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 there scheme early - some were keen to get a 'real job', even it meant going into 'dead-end work'.

On Tyneside, only four in 10 were in employment after leaving YT, while there rest found themselves jobless. School leavers were well are that there were good and bad schemes - the latter regarded as 'slave labour with no training and no job at the end of it.

The more unscrupulous bosses saw them as an inexhaustible  pool of  cheap labour. Some small businesses used YT trainees to displace existing staff.

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 responsibilities seriously, often sending trainees on day-release at local colleges, 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, run by 'blue-chip' firms were highly sought after.

With the number of young unemployed likely to rise over 1.2 million by Christmas we must do all we can to give this group the best chance of success and stop the disadvantage gap widening.  Kickstart is to be welcomed. But  it needs to be built upon, regulated and fully funded  for potential new jobs in the 'green economy' both in our region and elsewhere.

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 Director of Education4Democracy CIC

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