If the Government's Work Programme Is Not Working - Then What Will?

29/11/2012 16:37 GMT | Updated 29/01/2013 10:12 GMT

Latest results show that the government's flagship back-to-work scheme is not working. At least not yet. But as more young people are locked out of the job market, we need to start looking at other ways to help.

When the Work Programme was launched in June 2011 the employment minister promised it would "transform the lives of millions." Yet this week saw the scheme fall well short of its targets to help people into sustainable employment, and just 3.53% of all participants had succeeded in getting jobs for longer than six months. Similarly of nearly a quarter of a million young people that are eligible for the scheme, only 2.5% of them found work.

Clearly this is not enough.

But high youth unemployment is not confined to Britain. Nations across the world are struggling to combat an epidemic of young jobless, with some having bigger problems than others. In particular among countries enduring the fallout of the Eurozone crises the outlook for young people is incredibly bleak; in both Spain and Greece youth unemployment rates hover around 50%. Whilst this makes Britain's youth unemployment rate of 20.7% look rosy, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that is nearly double the global average. Indeed, in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands youth unemployment is below 10%.

In many ways comparisons between these countries are impossible due to the political and economic grand canyons that sit between them. But what is clear is that in areas where the economy is flagging, and in some cases crumbling, youth unemployment spikes. Young people suffer from 'last-in -first-out' syndrome which flares up in an economic downturn.

The under- 25s do not get hired because they lack skills and experience, and for the same reason they are first out when firms need to sack somebody. So it logically follows that in Greece and Spain, where the economy has flattened, youth unemployment has sky rocketed.

But in spite of this economic rationale, precautions have been taken by Germany and Switzerland to safeguard their youth. These seem to be working as their next generations of bright young minds are escaping the global financial crisis comparatively unscathed. So what are they doing that we are not?

Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe, uses a system of Minijobs. This allows employees to earn up to 400 Euros a month without paying any tax or National Insurance. The whole process is hugely simple for employers, who pay a flat rate of 30% tax to one single body. There is no limit to the number of these flexible, part-time jobs one individual can hold, and others use them in addition to full time work.

The system, which was introduced in 2003, helped to half youth unemployment in the first year and create half a million more part-time jobs. Whether or not you're a believer in the Minijobs 'miracle' surely we can agree with Boris Johnson that this German programme is 'at least worthy of further investigation.'

Similarly neighbouring Switzerland offers a world class vocational education, and a work-based qualification is a weighty and valued alternative to a degree. Around two thirds of 15- to 19-year-olds go through the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system compared with just 6% of 16- to 18-year-olds in England.

The Swiss invest in their apprentices with typical placements lasting around 3 to 4 years, and time quite evenly divided between the workplace and classroom.

VET is an easy-to-access, standardised scheme which is designed by employers. Pupils are not deterred because choosing a vocational route does not narrow academic options, and a series of qualifications bridge training courses with academia to make a subsequent crossover easier. In fact this model has been so successful they are exporting it abroad, and recently India committed to training 526 million apprentices by 2020.

But these are just a couple of great practices being used by governments, companies and communities all over the world. We need to draw out the best ones and use them to shape our own future. So whilst it may be too early to write off the Work Programme we do need to keep our eyes open to the other options, and pick and choose the bits that would work best for Britain.

Let us not lose a generation.