New Deal must open doors for unskilled

18th July 1997 at 01:00
When Gordon Brown met 38 leading businessmen over croissants and coffee last month, all was sweet. The Government was to use windfall tax proceeds to get unemployed young people back to work, and would provide a Pounds 60-per-week subsidy for each person recruited as an inducement.

The businessmen would take on some young people, provide them with on-the-job training and make a relatively painless contribution to tackling a social and economic problem.

But as they entered 11 Downing Street, several businessmen, interviewed for the BBCToday programme, expressed concern that they would not be able to offer jobs to many of the potential young beneficiaries.

The reason was simple: they could only accept people who had the basic aptitudes and skills to hold down a job. They would not take - even for a much higher subsidy - young people without motivation and basic literacy and numeracy skills.

An understandable response, but one which poses a major problem for Labour's New Deal. It means that employers will simply cream off the most highly-motivated and qualified of the young unemployed, leaving the most disadvantaged behind.

If a young person is unmotivated or lacking basic skills, they will not be ready to take up a formal training place or a place with a voluntary organisation (two of the other three options available under the New Deal). The environmental task force could become a sink option into which all the most disadvantaged are put.

The New Deal may follow the unlamented youth training schemes of the past by failing the quality test. This would be a tragedy, not only for the young people who would pass through the programme without gaining the skills and experience they will need if they are ever to be gainfully employed, but also for the reputation of youth training programmes.

Can anything be done to avoid this? I believe it can, by introducing a new element. The Government has already talked about a gateway to the programme in which each young person will be counselled about what the most appropriate option might be. While this is clearly necessary, I do not believe that it is nearly enough.

What is needed for the most disadvantaged, least motivated and least skilled is a gateway programme that prepares them for one of the main New Deal options and gives them a chance of gaining a place with an employer.

Such a programme would begin by tackling the sense of alienation and hopelessness felt by many young unemployed. It would give them the self-belief and self-confidence they currently lack. It would help strengthen their social and communications skills and prepare them for the disciplines of a working environment. It would do so by requiring them to become involved in positive and challenging activities.

These are the skills which we instil through Prince's Trust Volunteers courses. Next year some 14,000 young people will pass through our programme, 80 per cent of them will be unemployed. Over a three-month course, they will undertake team-building activities, an outdoor residential week, and individual placements, group projects and challenges in the community.

At the end of it 70 per cent will gain a job or begin further training. They will get accreditation for the key skills they have gained.

Our experience suggests that the New Deal really could help the most disadvantaged if only they can reach first base. We are not suggesting that we would be the right gateway option for everyone. We do not, for example, concentrate on providing basic literacy and numeracy skills which many young people need. We only operate on a relatively modest scale. But a carefully-tailored gateway programme for the most disadvantaged could help young people not only to take up one of the main New Deal options, but could offer the chance of making a success of their participation in them. Now that really would be a new deal.

Elizabeth Crowther-Hunt is director of the Prince's Trust Volunteers

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