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Finished before he's really begun

Brian W Bell's son lost his job after three years and one week seven days after he became qualified. What do you say to a 19-year-old when he comes through the door looking gutted? What do you say to him when he has worked conscientiously (and for a pittance) at his job since he left school at 16, has had little (if any) time off through illness, has attended day release college classes for three years, has passed all his exams, has become fully-qualified (via both examinations and experience) and is then sacked a week after his final results.

What do you say when you realise that the same thing has happened to other 19 and 20-year-olds? There was the young school-leaver who was taken on as an apprentice joiner and was sacked the day he passed his final exams. I know him. Then there was the young girl taken on as a trainee travel agent who worked her way through college and was sacked just as she sailed through her written tests. I know her too.

I know a young trainee who became a fully-qualified and, shortly afterwards, unemployed chef; I know of a young banker, a young baker and, I'm sure, someone, somewhere, knows a young candlestick maker who has suffered the same fate. What, as a parent, do you say?

Whatever you say publicly to any son or daughter caught in this position is nothing compared to what you say privately to yourself, to your wife or to your friends. In public you try to make the right noises. You sympathise, you empathise, you support.

You try to build confidence where it has been destroyed, you try to build hope where it has been removed, you try to create the illusion that everything is all right (when it isn't) and eventually you manage, through love and care and the sheer strength of your relationship, to convince your son or daughter that the fault is not theirs and that there is a future out there somewhere.

Inwardly, though, you seethe. Inwardly you know why your son or daughter's chosen career has been finished before it has hardly begun.

It all, of course, boils down to money. It boils down to the Government paying employers to take on young people with the aid of a grant, training them to fully-qualified status, then stopping the grant once that status has been reached.

With a great many employers - the scrupulous as well as the unscrupulous, the big as well as the small - the Government grant, the Youth Training Allowance or whatever you care to call it, is the only reason they took on a young person in the first place.

Remove the grantallowance for the newly-qualified young person, and you don't remove the job, you simply remove the person who is replaced with someone even younger, someone to whom the grantallowance will apply.

I know exactly what happened in the case of my son. While he served his so-called "apprenticeship", the Government (via one of the training agencies) paid my son's employer an allowance which the employer "topped-up" (to a marginally larger pittance!) and paid him a wage. As soon as he was fully-qualified the allowance stopped and the employer was not only left to foot the wage bill for his young employee but was also expected to pay him the "going rate" for a fully-qualified tradesman.

The result for my son, and for thousands of others, was the sack. So who do you blame?

Do you blame the Government which gives out the grants and allowances, or the employers who accept them? Do you blame the Government for encouraging such youth employment or the employers who take advantage of it? Is it better to lull young people into a false sense of security by encouraging them to become qualified then sacking them when they are, or is it better to be honest and admit that the whole thing is a sham?

Is the Government's constant claim that we need a well-qualified and skilled workforce consistent with the fact that there aren't enough jobs to substantiate those claims? Or is it yet another ploy to reassure us that everything is all right, when it's not.

I don't know. But I do know that the next time I pass the place where my son used to work, I'll look out for a very young employee who has just started work (replacing my qualified son, I'll bet) and I'll be tempted to stop the car and tell him he's wasting his time. I'll be tempted to tell my son's ex-employer that he's a mercenary so-and-so and I'll be tempted to put a brick through his window.

But I won't do any of those things. Instead I'll fume, hiss and spit and I'll think ahead to the date in three years time when that lad's dad will be asking the same question I'm asking today. What do you say to a young man who has had the world pulled from under his feet?

Brian W Bell is a careers teacher in a Durham comprehensive.

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