"We've tried education, that's failed us. We've tried actively seeking work. We don't know what we should be doing."
Diane Johnson, a 21-year-old from Wakefield, made the plea after being invited by the University and College Union (UCU) to form part of a panel challenging politicians to say how they would tackle the record one million people out of work and education.
When the education maintenance allowance system hit problems in 2008, Diane left college saying she could no longer afford to attend. Since then she has only been able to find occasional temporary work.
Given the chance to have their say, the under-25s said they wanted influence over how the money for their education and training was spent.
Shamayal Yakoob is an 18-year-old from Birmingham who wanted to pursue graphic design, but with poor grades from school and high demand he cannot find a college place.
He said: "When the Government puts money into areas, why doesn't it ask the youngsters first? Why doesn't it ask the youngsters where the money should go? Because I don't see any evidence of it."
Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for innovation, universities and skills, agreed. "There should be groups to advise schools and colleges about what it is young people actually want in terms of education and training between 16 and 19. That's where local councils and colleges probably go wrong in not involving enough people. But it takes two to make it work and people have also got to come forward and tell college principals or youth services or Connexions what it is they want," he said.
The discussion reflected differing approaches to young people. Mr Williams opened up an informal discussion, but John Hayes, Conshadow minister for skills, spoke at length, quoted the Irish poet Yeats and only answered four questions from students. Iain Wright, Labour minister for apprenticeships and 14-to-19 reform, was unable to attend the event, held in Westminster.
Mr Hayes said Tory plans to put up to pound;800m from Train to Gain, catering for people already in work, into apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships would mean more provision for teens without a college place or job.
But the experience of students, and the under-recruitment of 16 to 19 apprenticeships, suggested the problem was that employers did not want to recruit in a recession. As one would-be apprentice put it: "I applied for jobs that I didn't even want, just for the fact of having one and trying to take my career further, but I haven't found anything."
Mr Hayes was critical of a school system that he said left 40,000 teenagers a year with literacy problems. But the former students were even more scathing about their education. One said: "When I was in school, the teachers hated us so much they didn't turn up."
The debate came as Niace, the adult education body, announced that it was interviewing thousands of under-25s out of work, education and training for a research project on how to reduce their numbers.