Last month’s jobs figures showed that the overall employment rate of 73.7 per cent was the highest since records began, but the battle to reduce youth unemployment is still a work in progress. The unemployment rate of 14.2 per cent for 16- to 24-year-olds, while down from recession-high levels, still doesn’t compare well with the lowest ever rate of 11.6 per cent, recorded in 2001.
At the same time, the number of reported job vacancies stands at 736,000 – more than the youth unemployment figure of 653,000. So why is the latter still so high? A common complaint from employers is that not enough young people have the right skills, so we need to examine whether the education system is working as well as it should.
We also need to recognise that other factors are at play. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) and Pearson will soon be publishing new research into young people who are not in education, employment or training (Neet). This identifies, for example, that 133,600 out-of-work benefit claimants under 25 have at least one child, representing 31 per cent of all claimants in the 16-24 age group and suggesting that young people often have multiple barriers to getting work. Those with some form of incapacity or disability are also finding it difficult to find a job.
Providers and colleges have to work closely with government, employers, schools and young people to eradicate youth unemployment. Employers and young people would be far less confused about the support available if it was built around the core national programmes of traineeships, apprenticeships and the Work Programme. Of course, devolution and money from the European Structural and Investment Funds will allow some overlap between these programmes and localised provision, and AELP would encourage innovative local commissioning that offers more integrated employment and skills support to young people.
But nationally, the government has made too many attempts to reinvent the wheel, often to provide eye-catching announcements in Budgets and Autumn Statements.
Having a 3 million target for apprenticeships has understandably prompted a lot of debate, mostly relating to concerns that this puts quantity before quality. But it does necessitate a consistent policy environment so that we get long-term growth over the next five years and more. We need more focus on traineeships, as part of a flexible programme which is well positioned to help young people progress to an apprenticeship or work. As the AELP/Pearson report recommends, more needs to be done to raise awareness. Traineeships and apprenticeships also improve vocational skills, English and maths, and provide the work experience that employers want.
Recently published data from the Department for Education shows that only 5 per cent of school-leavers immediately move on to an apprenticeship. This figure hasn’t changed for years. The government has raised the participation age but it has not done enough to explain that this does not simply mean the school-leaving age has gone up. Low awareness of high-quality vocational programmes among young people, parents and teachers requires a more focused solution. Providers and colleges must be allowed access to schools and parents, and they can help engage the employers that they work with on apprenticeships.
Further education and skills can make a big difference in getting the Neet numbers down but the watchwords must be a simpler and more stable approach in offering support to young people.
Stewart Segal is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers