Neat But Wrong - Stop Blaming Young People for Youth Unemployment

Young people are an easy target, and talking about employability and skills kills a number of ideological birds in one swoop. But chasing full employability is not a solution to the plight of NEETs and demonising the young and out of work is irresponsible.

The 'NEET' problem is in many respects, politically tidy. It reaches across the political divide, appealing at once to notions of justice based on equality as well as individual responsibility. Ensuring every young person has the opportunity to make the most of the life is a central plank of modern progressive and conservative ideologies.

That political position, if the scale of the problem itself is not sufficient, goes some way to explaining the attention the stubborn problem of high youth unemployment has received from across the political spectrum. Not only from political parties but organisations from the TUC to the CBI which have found some common ground on the matter.

Yet, despite the attention the NEET challenge has received since the onset of Great Recession, as well as the degree of political consensus, the problem remains as potent as ever. The most recent government statistics in fact showed a slight increase in the number of NEETs in the last quarter.

For those of us who work in the skills sector; in Colleges and training providers, as well as in businesses that employ young people, the fact that the number of NEETs is still growing, while not a surprise - it's difficult to be surprised at familiar news - is a frustration. We know for instance that the number of apprenticeship vacancies has been steadily increasing and anecdotally, large numbers of employers and providers struggle to attract candidates for apprenticeship positions.

Of course, there are many explanations for that apparent incoherence, the level of pay of many apprenticeships, poor careers advice in schools and the general stigma attached to vocational education in the UK, for instance, all play their part.

All of these contribute to a perceived skills gap; the distance between the skills young people possess and the skills employers require. Far more common place however than any of the explanations above, has been a general trend to focus on employability. Putting employability at the centre of education has become so regular it now forms a pillar of 'common-sense' policy making.

Education policy has become synonymous with skills policy, despite huge variations in what is meant by the term 'skill' or 'employability', it is common place for any discussion of education, particularly post-compulsory education, by policy makers or journalists to revert to those terms more or less uncritically. That position, which has seen the language of 'learning and skills' replace almost entirely the concept of education, betrays not only an individualism which places responsibility for learning, as well employment outcomes, at the foot of the individual and their educators (upskillers?) and away from the Government or employers, but also a narrow-sighted diagnosis of persistent youth unemployment as a simple skills mismatch.

In the politics of full-employability the solution to those young people who are NEET is logically simple - ensure they are given the skills that employers require and that unrealised demand will allow the economy to flourish.

Yet, there is one major limitation to that diagnosis - not to mention the highly questionable position that improving the supply of labour will lead to more or better jobs -young people aren't as rubbish as is often made out. In fact, they're fairly accomplished.

The UKCES recently asked 18,000 employers about their perspective on recruitment, skills and education. Unsurprisingly, 25% of 16 year old school leavers were found to lack life experience or maturity. Lack of time spent alive is a difficult issue to remedy. In contrast, just 3% were deemed to have a poor education, and that figure reduces to 1% for College and University leavers. Similarly 73% of College leavers were deemed, by employers, to be well-prepared for work. Which doesn't sound like an employability crisis.

Even more starkly, of all employers asked, less than 2% thought College leavers lacked the right skills for the jobs on offer and only 0.24% thought College leavers lacked the necessary literacy or numeracy skills. The NEET problem then is not an employability problem.

In their Action Plan the OECD place policies to strengthen the employability of young people as secondary to measures to directly tackle youth unemployment, such as providing income support and encouraging employers to provide routes to the labour market.

And that last point is crucial - tackling youth unemployment must be regarded as a mutual endeavour, a societal problem with societal remedies. In the same UKCES survey, in which 92% of employers believed work experience was valuable in the recruitment of young people, just 38% said they offered work placements and when asked what it would take to begin offering work experience, the most common response from those who didn't, was 'nothing.'

Young people are an easy target, and talking about employability and skills kills a number of ideological birds in one swoop. But chasing full employability is not a solution to the plight of NEETs and demonising the young and out of work is irresponsible. We need to stop blaming young people for youth unemployment and start taking the social responsibility to provide good jobs seriously.


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