12/10/2011 13:00 BST | Updated 12/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Victims Of Austerity: Cancelled Youth Programmes Leave Few Options

As youth unemployment climbs towards 1 million, experts say that policy action to support further education, apprenticeships and create job guarantees will be needed to prevent the creation of a “scarred generation” of people who fail to ever fully integrate with the workforce.

Even before the recession, youth unemployment was high and rising, but the current economic downturn has exacerbated a problem with many roots and no silver bullet solutions. Previous recessions and periods of sustained youth unemployment have cause “scarring” of segments of the population who attract lower wages and suffer from poorer mental wellbeing than their peers.

“A lot of the issues seem to start at a young age,” Paul Brown, a director at the Princes Trust said. “There are an alarming number of people who grow up in households where nobody has ever worked, and so we have a lot of young people who don’t have positive adult role models and don’t grow up in a household where that general daily routine of going to work is the norm.

“I think there are lots of young people who set very low aspirations for themselves,” Brown said.

Low levels of attainment in schools compound these issues of aspiration and confidence, he added.

“Lots of young people continue to not just achieve poor GCSEs, but to leave school with very low levels of basic skills in literacy and numeracy,” Brown said. “If you combine that with low levels of confidence... then that combination of lack of aspiration and motivation, low basic skills and qualifications and low confidence, then young people simply don’t know where to turn for help.

“The good side is that they are things that can be worked on. They’re not terminal factors.”

Under its austerity measures, the UK’s coalition government cut the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) - which gave financial incentives for 16-year-olds to stay in education - and the £1 billion Future Jobs Fund (FJF).

According to Labour market expert Paul Gregg at the University of Bath, the long-term youth unemployed are broadly split into those who leave school at 16 and immediately struggle, and those who stay in education or make some contact with the job market, but find themselves out of work above the age of 18.

“The first [group], the primary focus should be on education,” Gregg said. “At 16 or 17, what we need is guaranteed access to education or apprenticeships to deflect people from leaving school or into nothing. We can do something about youth unemployment at 16 or 17, and it should be primarily through the apprentice system and the education system, rather than anything else. It’s almost like raising the school leaving age. You put every effort into deflecting people from leaving school, put them into apprenticeships, etc.”

The cancellation of the EMA, which gave 16 to 19-year-olds between £10 and £30 per week to remain in full time education, has, anecdotally at least, reduced the numbers of students enrolling in colleges.

The school leaving age is slated to be raised to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015, “but the problem is now,” Gregg said. “We need to be moving in this direction rapidly now... We’re not supporting kids to stay on in school. This is wrong. We’ve got to try to organise the transition at 16 or 17 to be firmly into staying on in school, rather than moving into the labour market.”

The government has made much of its drive to create apprenticeships, but the extent to which they have reached systemic levels is in question. The culture in the UK is not yet one where companies routinely offer training opportunities for school leavers.

“When you compare the UK to Germany or Austria, we compare pretty poorly. One in ten British companies offer apprenticeships, compared to one in four in Austria or Germany,” Jonathan Wright, a researcher at the Work Foundation, told the Huffington Post UK on Tuesday. “Granted, they have different social arrangements, but employers are much more willing to take on vocational education in Germany, and it’s not looked down on. The UK performs particularly poorly in intermediate and basic levels of skills.”

For over-18s, the issue is more around recovery. The government’s Work Programme is an attempt to help young people through the process of finding employment, but Gregg said that its resources might not be enough.

“The Work Programme is looking underfunded for the severity of what we’re facing... It’s proven to be an effective strategy but it needs a lot of investment,” he said. “But at the moment too few kids are getting into it because they’re not satisfying the conditions that you have to be unemployed, receiving unemployment benefit for a certain period of time. Lots of kids are moving in and out of employment.”

Perhaps a greater problem is that young people are unable to get their feet on the first rung of the employment ladder, and lack the references and experience needed to get a full time role. The FJF was designed to overcome this problem by offering short-term job guarantees. It was closed in May 2010 following the change of government.

The basis of the scheme was sound, according to Gregg. “You have providers who are paid to give work experience placements for six months or so... to get them references from a recognised employer,” he said. “This is what you need when you’ve been out of work for a while... [the FJF] probably wasn’t the best designed. It wasn’t bad, but it could have been better. But we need to get back to that, and start to look at that again.”

In the meantime, it is important not to let the economic situation and the general lack of opportunities in the labour market - the jobless total for the UK hit 2.57 million on Wednesday - to deflect from preparing the current cohort of unemployed youth for work.

“More jobs will come when the economy starts to grow again, and what we need to do is keep young people on a journey to be moving forward so that they’re prepared when those jobs come,” he said. “When you’ve got a young person today who struggles with low levels of literacy and numeracy, then we need to make sure that they’re prepared for the jobs when they come. It’s no good sitting back and waiting for the upturn to arrive.”