Despite improvements to the headline labour market figures over the past year, youth unemployment continues to blight the country. The youth unemployment rate for December 2015 to February 2016 was reported at 13.7 per cent, compared to 5.1 per cent for the headline rate. This terrible statistic reflects the reality that 627,000 young people aged 16 to 24 cannot find work. As a teacher would say - we must do better.
The plight of youth unemployment brings with it serious and long term social, financial and economic implications; for young people's mental and physical health, their earning potential and the nation's productivity and growth.
Systemic and Catastrophic
Even though it has been falling over the past few years, youth unemployment in the UK is still significantly higher than comparable economies in Europe such as Germany and Denmark (7 per cent and 9.9 per cent respectively). After a massive hike to 22.5% in 2011, the UK rate is now only slightly lower than the pre-downturn trough of 13.8% (three months to Feb 2008). Since comparable records began in 1992, the unemployment rate for those aged 16 to 24 has been consistently higher than that for older age groups. The problem is obviously systemic. The blight on millions of young lives has been catastrophic.
Market and economic changes such as recession negatively affect young people in the labour market far more than those over 24. A recent study commissioned by Young Enterprise found that 46 per cent of 16 - 18 year olds still blame the ongoing impact of the recession for their generation's difficulties in finding work, citing fewer jobs available. With the recent ONS figures showing a marked slowdown of the UK economy in the first quarter of this year, more uncertainty in the job market is likely to follow - and negatively affect those most vulnerable; the young.
In addition, organisations representing British business such as the British Chambers of Commerce, CBI and the FSB report difficulties in finding young recruits who are adequately prepared for the world of work. Our report echoed this, with 48% of young people saying that a greater demand for academic and vocational qualifications when it comes to finding a career also makes it harder for young people to find a job.
Faced with such high expectations, it is wholly unsurprising that 90% of the young people we surveyed believe bosses expect too much of young people in general, with more work experience and developed character skills, as well as better qualifications, being the main attributes expected. With schools forced to focus on academic results and the negative views of employers highlighted above, young people are caught in the middle between striving for the top grades and preparing for the world of work. Is it any wonder youth unemployment remains stubbornly higher than the headline rate?
The crucial link
If employers are telling us that this is what they want from a young workforce, and young people realise this, surely there is a crucial missing link in the chain causing a skills gap. We should be providing the next generation with the opportunities to develop these skills and attitudes, to help them successfully move from the classroom to the workplace and confidently weather economic changes along the way. After over a dozen years in education, surely this must be a key outcome? So by measuring solely academic success, are we measuring the right things?
Academic work is undoubtedly important, but employers and future-employees alike continue to lament that alone it is not enough to secure meaningful employment or to be successful in that work. Worryingly, our research has revealed that many young people are finishing school feeling they lack the necessary skills and experience to secure a job.
The link between basic academic skills and key skills development should not be ignored. Character skills can benefit academic learning through resilience and the ability to pick oneself up after a setback, such as an exam failure or a low mark.
A foundation for employability
It is essential that young people leave the education system with the right foundations to succeed in the workplace. Key skills development through experience of work and entrepreneurship - programmes such as those we offer at Young Enterprise -will both enable young people to finish education ready for the world of work, and will complement basic academic skills. UK schools should take key skills, character development and leaver destinations into account alongside academic achievement when reporting on success.
In particular, schools in deprived areas should be encouraged to prioritise engagement with external schemes and programmes, and build links with local businesses. The proposed extension of the school day for 25% of secondary schools to include character activities - as set out in the Government's recent whitepaper - means head teachers at these schools have a real opportunity to do so.
Preventing young people from becoming NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) must be a national priority, and young people who are disadvantaged by financial and social circumstances deserve to have access to resources to build confidence and skills.
Faced with huge workload pressures, teachers also need to be supported in their efforts to prepare young people for working life. For new teachers entering the profession, clarity and assistance in how to deliver effective character development must be central to the upcoming initial teacher training framework.
The DfE's new Standards for Teachers' Professional Development should also emphasise the importance of character education and provide inspiration to existing teachers.
But perhaps most importantly, more business leaders should be encouraged to act as role models and mentors in schools to bridge the gap between education and work. Instead of dreading entering the world of work for fear of being unemployed and lacking the necessary skills to succeed, young people should be confident and keen to contribute. We would all benefit from this - a strong, confident and productive workforce is crucial for improved life-chances, a stronger economy and superior social cohesiveness.