Struggle goes on to avoid 'lost generation'

3rd June 2011 at 01:00
Youth unemployment rose to over 25% in Scotland last year. Julia Belgutay reports on the initiatives trying to tackle the problem

This recession is like no other. It is, say economists, hitting young people disproportionately hard - so much so that they are in danger of becoming a "lost generation".

One in five Scots aged 16 to 24, who were not in education, were unemployed last year. That is a 2.7 per cent increase on 2009, according to research by Professor David Bell of Stirling University. And the bad news for these youngsters is that he predicts slow growth in the areas that matter to them for the next seven years.

Professor Bell is particularly concerned about 16 to 19-year-olds; 25.7 per cent of them are currently unemployed, more than three times the adult unemployment rate of 7.6 per cent. In 2009, it was 13.8 per cent.

For these young people, finding a route into the job market becomes more difficult over time, and their unemployment has disastrous long-term effects from which they may never recover.

Research by Professor Bell and fellow economist Professor David Blanchflower, of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, has shown a "scarring effect" created by periods of unemployment early on in life, affecting both their chances of jobs in the future, due to their lack of work experience, and the level of wages they will earn in later life.

Both the Scottish and Westminster governments have declared that tackling youth unemployment is a priority, conscious of the risk that losing young people early means losing them for life.

Last month a summit on youth unemployment in Irvine, in the heart of one of Scotland's unemployment blackspots, was attended by some of the people most closely involved with the issue. It was convoked by the Scottish Secretary of State, Michael Moore, and the Minister for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, who was on his first visit to Scotland since unveiling his welfare reforms. These are intended to simplify the benefit system, make work pay and put the onus on claimants to find a job.

The North Ayrshire summit was the first of three to be held this year; a national conference is scheduled for this autumn.

Mr Moore told TESS it was time that the deep-seated reasons behind Scotland's youth employment crisis were examined in detail.

He had noticed a frustration among experts at the summit that "every time we look at this, the same message of holistic work has to be hammered home".

Yet he was still optimistic that young Scots could be brought back on the track to employment.

"The focus has to be on employability and getting the right skills and right culture in which people aspire to have a job in the first place," he said.

"One big, hard-to-crack problem is that many of the young unemployed are from jobless households and may be in the second or third generation of people without employment."

Despite having gone through the same financial downturn, other EU countries now have significantly lower youth unemployment figures than Scotland's 20 per cent level. In Germany, for example, 10 per cent of young people are unemployed, while in Slovenia it is less than 15 per cent.

Germany's comparative success is attributed by Professor Bell to the higher status it affords to technical jobs, so young people are much more willing to go down the vocational route and employers are more inclined to participate in the apprenticeship system.

In Scotland, it is the young people without qualifications, especially those aged 16 and 17, who have struggled in this recession, and their prospects are unlikely to change unless they can obtain qualifications.

Consumer spending is expected to grow slowly in the next few years, limiting the number of jobs available in areas such as retail or catering, predicts Professor Bell, and these are careers many young people with few qualifications have traditionally gone into.

An added difficulty is that during the financial downturn, many experienced people went into part- time work or accepted jobs for which they were over-qualified, leaving fewer avenues for young people to enter employment.

Many employers are reluctant to employ young people because they feel they lack key employability skills, says Iain McMillan, director of CBI Scotland.

"Employers have highlighted that many youngsters applying for posts not only lack specific job-related skills, but also fall short on basic employability skills such as timekeeping, interpersonal skills, or basic numeracy and literacy."

Young people would not necessarily be expected to have the specific skills required for a particular job, but they needed to be "employment-ready, rather than job-ready" and demonstrate core skills that employers can build on, he added.

Schools have in the past been blamed for not equipping youngsters with the skills required, but Mr McMillan believes Curriculum for Excellence could mark an important step forward. "That is about developing various capabilities and learning in young people that will suit them for the world of tomorrow, and that very much includes the workplace."

More Choices More Chances was the somewhat unwieldy title given by the Scottish Government to the strategy it adopted in 2006 to tackle youth unemployment and reduce the number of young people not in education, employment or training.

It demanded action from local authorities, public bodies and a range of agencies to provide support and training and offer young people a variety of options for their future.

The economic landscape has changed since then, but the imperative for finding solutions has become greater.

The number of school leavers going straight to further education colleges to gain vocational qualifications has risen since the beginning of the economic downturn.

Professor Blanchflower does not pretend college training is a cure-all, but it has its merits: "You don't want people to go into education for the sake of going there, but if the alternative is for them to be on the street, I would rather they were not on the street. In a recession, education is a sensible alternative for people."

Colleges are still the main provider of skills training in Scotland, says John Henderson, chief executive of Scotland's Colleges. But they need to realise the idea of "careers for life" has gone and equip students instead with a more flexible, varied set of skills, he believes.

Employers also have to play their part in shaping skills training to ensure college graduates are appropriately prepared for their future careers, he argues.

The government agency Skills Development Scotland's approach reflects that philosophy in its flagship programmes of Modern Apprenticeships and Get Ready for Work. In the past year, SDS has handled 200,000 enquiries from people seeking jobs and training advice, says John McClelland, the organisation's acting chair.

It recently launched an internet platform called My World of Work, which provides advice and information to those seeking work, and only last week (May 26) ran a special conference in conjunction with leading ICT companies to highlight to careers advisers the qualifications and skills that will be required by an expanding sector.

Immediate prospects for growth in the retail sector may be poor, but the IT industry is forecasting that it will need around 40,000 new IT and telecoms professionals over the next five years, which is why some of the UK's largest employers have set up Modern Apprenticeships in ICT. The recent announcement that online retailer Amazon is creating 900 jobs at a new customer service centre in Edinburgh and Hewlett-Packard has established an IT service hub at Erskine, adding 400 to its existing staff of 600, dispels some of the gloom.

Modern Apprenticeships allow young people to progress towards their vocational qualification through practical work for an employer and part- time study with a training provider.

In December 2010, 36,000 people were in Modern Apprenticeship training in Scotland, according to figures from SDS. The Scottish Government has promised to introduce a further 25,000 apprenticeships.

Mr McClelland argues that they are vital, both in their volume and in the quality of training they offer. "It is a real job, but it is a real educational journey as well," he says. He has assured the First Minister, Alex Salmond, that the promised additional places are deliverable, but stresses that employers have to play their part too.

From the employers' perspective, Iain McMillan believes it may be difficult to deliver this pledge. Although Modern Apprenticeships are subsidised by the Government, employers still have to invest significant time to train a young person in their trade or profession.

"There are capacity issues that need to be worked through," he told TESS. "There isn't an unlimited number of places available; employers need to have a genuine need."

Jacqui Hepburn, director of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils, which is also involved in developing vocational qualifications and Modern Apprenticeships, says the key to ensuring this increase is to develop new apprenticeships in other areas, for example the public sector - in councils, colleges and through public procurement contracts. Her words can be interpreted as an echo of the Government's strategy - more choices in more areas, therefore more chances of jobs.

By numbers

13.8%: number of 16-19s not in employment, education or training (NEET) in Scotland in 2009.

35%: unemployment rate for young people with no qualifications in Scotland in 2010.

Professor David Bell, Stirling University

14,795: number of people aged 19 or younger claiming Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) in April 2011.

1,515: number of people aged 24 and under who, in April 2011, had claimed JSA for more than 12 months.

STUC Labour Market Report

12,827: number of 16-19s starting Modern Apprenticeships in Scotland in 2010-11.

17.8%: rate of unemployment among 18-24s in the period December 2010- February 2011.

10,189: number of young people starting the Get Ready for Work programme in 2010-11.

4,088: number of positive outcomes for young people following the Get Ready for Work programme in Scotland in 2010-11.

Skills Development Scotland

`Difficult to find destinations'

"This year, it has certainly been more difficult to find destinations for our young people. Last year, for example, it was quite easy for our students to find part-time work to support their studies," said a careers adviser in a Central Belt college, who asked not to be identified.

Her students are now competing not only with graduates unable to find graduate-level jobs, but also with older, more qualified applicants out of work. But a lack of basic skills makes it even harder for many of the young people she encounters daily to find work.

"The main difficulty is that they lack a lot of basic social skills. They have no concept of being reliable, they have big difficulties with time- keeping, and a lot of them find it difficult to travel for work, even into the centre of Glasgow," she said.

"Another problem is that many leave school with poor numeracy and literacy skills and that is what employers find really difficult. They really should have learnt all these things at primary school age."

Responsibility for this did not lie exclusively with schools; students' social backgrounds also came into play, she said.

"A lot of young people don't really know what is out there and they don't understand how to find out. Many of them come from families who have not worked for three or four generations. Sometimes, it is very difficult to make them understand how to go about seeking work and how to explore all their options."

Often the only option she had was to try to refer students on to other agencies, such as Skills Development Scotland, or find further college courses for them to attend. The highest success rate in finding work was among those students doing courses which included practical work placements, and their proportion should be increased in future, she advocated.

Case study: `She was a natural, but I wanted her to do her vocational training'

Danika Cook, 16, from Bellshill, has long known that school was not for her. But she discovered a passion for childcare when helping to raise her twin sisters and planned to go on to college to qualify as a nursery nurse.

Because of her low marks and lack of school qualifications, she was unable to secure a college place, and her hunt to find a job was also unsuccessful.

Danika was persuaded by her school's careers adviser to attend an interview at Right Track, her local service provider for the Get Ready for Work Life Challenge Programme.

There, she received training in basic skills including literacy, numeracy and IT, and assistance in searching and applying for jobs. As part of her training, she did a work placement at Bumble Bees nursery in Bellshill.

Nursery owner Adele Langford said: "It was only supposed to be for a couple of weeks, but she was so good that it lasted for a few months. She was a natural and I wanted to take her on, but I wanted her to do her vocational qualification training."

Danika's dreams came crashing down again when she found she did not have the necessary qualifications from her Get Ready for Work programme to be considered by training provider Carousel Training. "I had a grade 3 in my English, but you needed a grade 4," Danika says.

But Ms Langford persuaded Carousel to let her sit a test, which she passed with flying colours.

Since March, Danika has regularly attended training sessions in addition to her work at Bumble Bees, and has her eyes set on becoming a qualified nursery nurse in a couple of years.

More choices

The Scottish Government's 16+ Learning Choices commitment is targeted at young people who fall into the More Choices More Chances group, otherwise known as not in education, employment or training (NEET).

Since 2010, the Government has promised that, working in partnership with local authorities, training providers and employers, it will provide all youngsters in this category with:

- the right learning provision - this could range from staying on at school to a place in further or higher education, participation in one of the national training programmes, or the chance to take part in personal and social development opportunities offered through community learning and development;

- the right financial support, based on what is most appropriate, rather than cost;

- and the right information, advice and guidance.

The seven councils identified in 2006 as Scotland's NEET hotspots have been committed to this strategy, and all have seen improvements. In a recent briefing paper on MCMC, Fife Council's education service stated its number of NEETs had declined since 2008, while the number of young people moving into "positive destinations" had risen to 87 per cent.

This has been achieved through a combination of better information, intervention where required, and the provision of a care worker to support transition, said the report.

But cuts in the council's budget mean that to sustain its 16+ Leaning Choices agenda, it will have to decide which services can be provided directly by other organisations and which can continue to rely on council funding.

North Ayrshire, another hotspot, is investing pound;700,000 this year in a range of proven early-intervention programmes to assist young people, including the MCMC Activate programme delivered in schools, taster programmes delivered by two local further education colleges, a range of community services programmes including the Three Towns' Motor Project, and flexible provision provided by the council's extended outreach team.

East Ayrshire has seen the percentage of school leavers entering positive destinations rise to 88.4 per cent, an improvement of 3.7 per cent from 2009. Total funding for MCMC will be pound;150,000 next year, the same as this year.

In Inverclyde, a senior phase guidance support pack has been developed for schools and Skills Development Scotland acts as a point of referral post- school for 16 to 17-year-olds.

In 2005-06, 18.8 per cent of school leavers in Clackmannanshire were unemployed, but by 2009-10, this had fallen to 12.1 per cent. This has been achieved through a variety of schemes and incentives in co-operation with learning providers and SDS.

Original headline: Struggle goes on to avoid a `lost generation'

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