The recent ONS figures for the September to November 2014 quarter show general unemployment is down. This is fantastic news, of course, and it rightly gained much positive coverage. But what's not so great - and was not so well-reported - is that the figures also show youth unemployment is on the rise again.
Today, there are 764,000 unemployed young people aged 16-24 in the UK. This is an increase of 30,000 on the last quarter, and takes the unemployment rate for this age group up to 16.9%, from 16.0%. These are startling figures. Although we are in a better position than we were a year ago when the rate was running at 20.1%, I do still worry that not enough action is being taken right now to ensure positive results in the future.
Unemployment is a huge issue for the political media, and aside from the bald figures it's not always easy to wade through the comment and speculation and get to the facts. A good example of this difficulty is a report published this month by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion on behalf of the Local Government Association. It attracted headlines including 'Teenage dropouts failed by careers advice', 'Dropout generation failed by colleges' and 'Teenage dropouts cost £800 million a year'. What the study actually said was that too many youngsters are being failed by a national 'bums on seats' approach to post-16 education that funds schools and colleges based on student numbers rather than enabling them to work together to provide the right courses.
Part of the problem with our attitude to youth unemployment now, as opposed to during the economic crisis, is that we assume the UK's youth unemployment rates are far lower than in the rest of Europe. But while youth unemployment is horrendously high in Spain (53.5%), Greece (49.8%) and Italy (43.9%), the rates in some of our closest neighbouring countries are very much lower than our own. In Germany the rate was only 7.2% in December 2014, 9.6% in the Netherlands and 11% in Denmark. We could compare ourselves more accurately to France, 25.2% and Belgium, 21.9%.
But before we get too depressed, as I see it, much has been done to improve the prospects of our young people, and the direction of travel is correct. But the pace is too slow and we've still not accepted that to deliver real, measurable results for our young people in the future we need to work together at the highest level in order to develop policies that get us to the point where we have the lowest youth unemployment rates in Europe.
The good news is that the UK now has the highest number of vacancies since comparable records began in 2001. More jobs are becoming available, businesses are expanding and this is excellent news for the economy. Suitable candidates for jobs however are fewer and farther between. With a job market that is more competitive than ever, young people need to arm themselves with the soft skills that will give them the confidence to apply for appropriate jobs. I am thrilled that the government is increasingly keen on enterprise education schemes and hope that skills education will be offered to prepare pupils, from all backgrounds, for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.
But we just can't be complacent. It's vital that we acknowledge that there are unanswered questions and areas of grave concern. One such area is self-employment. More than 4.5 million people now work for themselves and the UK has seen a decline in the number of people moving from self-employment to staff jobs. Compared to the global platform, Britons are much more likely to be self-employed. Self-employment and entrepreneurship should always be encouraged, however, the idea that these start-up enterprises are taking on a great number of employees is false. As little as 17% of those who are self-employed in the UK employ other people and this, internationally, is unusual. We have to face facts that for some, being registered as self-employed may be the only way of getting a job, or a succession of temporary jobs.
Meaningful and early intervention is vital when equipping future generations with the saleable skills that they will need in post-educational life. Education must 'tool up' our young people so that employers in the UK do not struggle to find good quality applicants for entry-level jobs. Many individuals lack the employability skills, training or motivation that are sought by recruiters today. Employers are raising the bar and they expect young people to be equipped for work. It's our responsibility to ensure that school leavers have the five key skills that are fundamental to maintaining a successful working life: the ability to communicate effectively; the ability to work in a team; resilience; the capacity to think creatively and the capacity to problem-solve. As skills for work and for life, they will prepare our young people for the future, whatever it may bring.