As the first person in my family to go to University, I left in 1991 in a recession that was just heating up. Unemployment was just over 2.5m, 8.9%, before rising to just short of 3m. Unemployment figures released in the UK on Wednesday (17/08) showed an increase again, to just under 2.5m, 7.9%. We have seen riots recently, followed by a variety of different media and expert responses on causes, issues and what to do next. A-Level results came out yesterday and this has sparked a further series of comments around jobs available for young people, education policy and taking jobs 'beneath you' - issues I come across in a range of international labour markets.
Around 350,000 consumers a year use a wide range of service in my organisation, A4e. Some we provide directly, some through partner organisations. This includes access to debt advice, health support, skills and education services, employment and business start up, legal aid. Many of our customers are on benefits or low incomes and a large proportion are young. From my work, it is clear that public services need to be more joined up and coordination is needed. The unrest involves criminality, frustration, blatant hooliganism - but the solutions needed are complex. There is no one answer or cause. Education, access to employment, enforcement, community links, parenting, respect, peer pressure, aspiration and enterprise are all issues that need addressing.
I am not an expert, nor in a position to comment on the riots. I am in a position, however, to make sure I make a contribution and do something positive in the areas where we work. On the issue of 'opportunity' and 'there are no jobs', I can comment. When I left University, I worked a range of jobs to pick up any money I could. Then, when I was unemployed, I signed on and headed to the job centre. Nothing was beneath me - I needed to earn and the main view I had was that I had to start at the bottom to get anywhere. I also wanted to start a small business and grow it internationally. One day I found an opportunity and I took it.
Enterprise and work ethic are two of the things I am most passionate about. Opportunity and aspiration are too. If you do not help people aspire and dare to dream, they will never see opportunity. Unless you give someone an opportunity, you will never know whether they could confound your belief. Whether it is employing someone with a criminal record, no qualifications but raw talent, placing someone young into a position of responsibility, someone older in a role they might never have considered - the list is endless. Business has a role to play alongside government and citizens in contributing to solutions. I have done all the above - and more - and my organisation continues to work to provide as much opportunity (and address and sort as many problems as we can) for people using the services we provide.
"What are you going to do about it?" This is the most common question I ask myself. It is a challenge to find solutions, improve circumstances. I am restless and relentless - to the annoyance of people I work around - in walking towards difficult challenges. This means I have to accept things will need iterating to success; mistakes will be made and accomplishments sometimes take time.
We polled a number of young people on our programmes last week asking their views on the unrest and work. We listened - as we often do - to our customer. They have come from a similar background and are facing some of the same challenges. Here are some messages that we will be responding to, in the words of our customers:
- the rioters have just made it worse
- police need more power and authority and sentencing needs to be harder
- getting arrested is just a badge of honour
- a sense of belonging and being valued needs to be emphasised
- there's a sense there are no jobs or skills in these communities and in the media.
Their solutions were interesting. Getting into communities and talking to both adults and kids about real opportunities for skills and training was key. More important however, was instilling a sense of ambition and opportunity through the dialogue and hands-on work regenerating and bringing enterprise to communities. So, their ideas combined tougher sentencing, belonging and family as well as enterprise and aspiration. That's an agenda we will try and respond to - to make our small contribution to improving this situation.