The New Triple Lock: Youth Unemployment

The New Triple Lock: Youth Unemployment

Kate felt that the job interview with Razor Digital was going really well. She'd solved the simultaneous equation they had given her and she'd aced the question on "The Taming of the Shrew" (how did Shakespeare present aspects of love in the quoted passage?). Luckily, both had come up in her recent A-level exams, so she was feeling pretty confident on securing this media relations position...

The next question was a bit trickier as it involved semi-Eulerian graphs (they were never her strong point), but the final one was easy as she gave a great description of landforms that resulted from fluvial erosion...

Then her alarm went off and she woke up with a start. Yesterday's interview came flooding back - it had been a total disaster. She'd followed all the standard guidance - switched her phone off, looked the interviewers in the eye, kept her answers short and to the point and shown her knowledge of media relations where possible. However, when grilled on how she could demonstrate an understanding and experience of teamwork, resilience and problem solving, she drew blanks. In hindsight, on her experience in problem solving, she shouldn't have referred to simultaneous equations. They'd laughed out loud - they genuinely thought she was being facetious! One of them had said that it would serve her better if she focused more on how to find a job than on how to find x in mathematical equations...

Unlike the exam questions above (which are, by the way, real) all characters in this episode are fictitious. But even so, situations like this are not the stuff of dreams - they're everyday realities for young people. Although much improved over the last few years, youth unemployment is back on the increase and now stands at 12.5%, giving rise to that damning statement: "youth unemployment is still triple the headline rate". Welcome to 21st century Britain: older people get the triple pension lock; young people get the triple lock on their employment chances.

New graduates often lack the experience required to fill a job opening, which leads to a protracted period of unemployment that damages their job prospects. Temporary jobs and internships, meanwhile, are less protected, pay less and may not offer on-the-job training or social benefits. I don't have to say what the dangers of youth unemployment are, but it bears noting: an increased risk of slipping into poverty, deskilling and social exclusion, not to mention a gradual loss of hope and motivation and even the possibility of mental health problems. Studies have shown that youth unemployment is associated with increased drug and alcohol use as well as higher levels of crime.

The question is: when will we actually implement a sustainable plan to bring youth unemployment down? Given that over the last 20 years, youth unemployment has been consistently and significantly above the headline rate, why has there not been more focus on this key statistic of failure? Why, when the UK has historically high numbers of job vacancies - three quarters of a million - are young people still struggling to get employed? Isn't it obvious that there is a serious systemic problem, and a large part of it lies in the way we educate our young people? Is our outdated school system not also a major contributor to our other "laggard" statistics, on productivity and the various specialist and general skills gaps? Comparatively, in Germany, youth unemployment has only been a few percentage points above the headline rate. We currently are on the wrong side of a 16% productivity gap with the other six G7 member states and a whopping 26.7% with Germany. Rising and systemic high youth unemployment is a global problem and the U.K. is by no means the worst. In fact, we are bang on the OECD average of 13%. However, this does not mean that we shouldn't be trying to match the German youth rate. If we did, we would get 250,000 more young people into work.

Over the last 20 years, the English school system has become confusing and fragmented. Frequent, rapid changes to the curriculum, to exams and to their grading have compounded the problem. Although exam results have improved, this has done nothing to improve youth unemployment; nor has the increase in students going to university led to more jobs for young people. Is it not the case, therefore, that the narrow focus on academia in our schools is part of a broken model? As I said in my November blog: "what strikes me more than anything else is that we've all watched our young people become less and less equipped to find a job - any job".

In Singapore, a country that consistently tops the OECD educational tables, they've started a gradual overhaul to the "exam factory" primary, secondary and tertiary system of education that put the focus on marks instead of on a child's holistic development. The Government there have realised that the country's academic success will not be enough for the economy to grow and compete in the rapidly changing world, or for their young people to compete and succeed in the globalised job market. For example, in the early stages of Singaporean primary education, exams are a thing of the past. Youth unemployment in Singapore, although higher than the headline unemployment rate, is lower than in other countries at 7.7%.

As Singapore's Acting Education Minister Ng Chee Meng explained in Parliament in 2016 when announcing the changes: "Let's help our children make good use of their time to branch out to explore other interests and passions and to pursue what they want to do in life. Let's help them make good choices about their educational and career pathways based on their aptitudes and aspirations. Let's help them to be ready for the future." I long for the day when a Secretary of State for Education in this country will say something similar. We should be taking the lead on changes like these, not following. But better late than never.

A 2015 World Economic Forum report, "New Vision of Education", said that to thrive in today's innovation-driven economy, employees need a different mix of skills than they did in the past. "In addition to foundational skills like literacy and numeracy, they need competencies like collaboration, creativity and problem-solving, and character qualities like persistence, curiosity and initiative," the report read.

I believe that we are teaching the wrong things in the wrong way. Bold, major steps need to be taken. And let's all bear in mind that as we march towards Brexit and the A.I. revolution, matters could, potentially, be about to get worse.


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