OPINION
02/03/2021 12:23 GMT

Covid Has Derailed Young People’s Lives. Here's How We Get Them Back On Track

When their jobs have been hit hardest and they’ll bear the scars longest, our youth deserve better than this government is willing to offer, writes Labour MP Yvette Cooper.

New jobs and new hope for young people should be at the heart of Wednesday’s Budget. Over a million young people are estimated to be unemployed or on long-term furlough. Their jobs and prospects have been hit hardest this year and they will bear the scars for longer. 

They deserve better. 

When government ministers are asked what they are doing to help, they point to the Kickstart scheme - but it is too small and too slow. We need urgent action to get young futures back on track.

Right now, support for young people is tiny compared to the scale of the problem. Over half a million young people are officially unemployed. Yet by the end of January, Kickstart’s subsidised jobs scheme had provided jobs for only 2,000 young people.

Ministers say that 120,000 Kickstart jobs are promised and that’s hugely welcome, but school and college leavers who have lost work or been stuck at home doing nothing for months on end can’t live or start a career on a promise. They need real jobs, training, skills and experience.

Growing up in the 1980s, I won’t ever forget the damage Margaret Thatcher’s government did to a generation of school and college leavers who ended up facing years of long-term unemployment. Missing out on that first job or apprenticeship, missing the chance to get started in the world of work, isn’t just hard in the short term. It holds young people back for years. 

When we faced the financial crisis in 2009, the Labour government was so determined to support young people into work, and it’s why the current government should be doing more.

Missing out on that first job or apprenticeship, missing the chance to get started in the world of work, isn’t just hard in the short term. It holds young people back for years.

As a minister I brought in the Future Jobs Fund in 2009, which – before it was abolished by George Osborne after the 2010 election – created over 100,000 youth jobs. Active government support had helped hundreds of thousands more young people into work or training as part of our Youth Guarantee. 

When ministers announced the Kickstart scheme last year, they said they were following the example of the Future Jobs Fund and I welcomed their plans. But that’s what makes Kickstart’s slow progress all the more frustrating. We know there is so much more they could do. 

First, they need to make Kickstart less clunky. Employers and business groups have complained about an overly centralised and bureaucratic system. It needs to work better and faster and give more flexibility to local Jobcentre Plus staff.

Second, they should give local councils a leading role and start actively involving public services, housing associations and charities in creating more jobs. Many private sector employers are still coping with making redundancies or dealing with uncertainty on when they can open up. That makes it harder for them to provide youth jobs fast enough.

Third, we need active drive and pressure from ministers to get placements running.  In 2009, we had weekly and sometimes daily meetings with Jobcentre managers, civil servants and employers to keep driving progress on the Future Jobs Fund. Within five months of launching, we had 27,000 young people in jobs with many more getting other help as well. By comparison, Kickstart had only 2,000 people in jobs by its fifth month. 

We cannot let the Covid pandemic scar an entire generation for the years to come.

Most important of all, this government needs to be much more ambitious. Kickstart provides places, but it isn’t a guarantee. We need a proper pledge that all young people will get a job or training place no matter where they live so that no young person will ever be left to drift into long-term unemployment.

The Fabian Society’s Commission on Workers and Technology, which I chaired, called for a work and train guarantee for unemployed young people. Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, has called for a ‘jobs promise’ for any young person out of work for six months or more.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown has demanded that the government kickstarts its Kickstart Scheme. This shouldn’t just be a temporary scheme that vanishes once health restrictions are lifted; we need a long-term plan that reshapes the way the welfare state works to end long term unemployment and guarantee everyone the chance of work. 

Young people have had such a difficult year. With exams thrown into chaos, universities shut, a mental health epidemic and a rising unemployment crisis amongst the under 25s, young people’s lives have been derailed during this crisis and it must be an absolute priority to get them back on track.

We cannot let the Covid pandemic scar an entire generation for the years to come. The Chancellor must act in Wednesday’s Budget to ensure that support and opportunities are available for young people – now.

Yvette Cooper is the Labour MP for Normanton, Pontfract and Castleford. Follow her on Twitter at @YvetteCooperMP