Having turned twenty-five and only recently found employment after a long period out of work, I have had considerable time to reflect on life on the dole for those in the 16-24 age bracket. What is absolutely clear to me is that this is not a short-term problem. It would be easy to assume that with economic recovery the problem of youth unemployment would recede but as the Work Foundation have noted, youth unemployment has been rising since 2004. Therefore it is essential to address the long-term strategy we have for equipping young people for the jobs market. I will propose a radical shake up of education that I believe would provide the confidence and foundation in work that my generation have lacked.
Based on government figures from 2009/10 the average secondary school in the UK spends about £6000 per year, per pupil. When I look back I realise that my friends and I were fundamentally sold short. We were taught to pass exams but we learnt very little that would help us find jobs in later life. Whether leaving education at 16, 18 or 21+ we struggled to find work. According to a 2011 UK Commission for Employment and Skills report on the recruitment of young people, a lack of experience and a perceived lack of motivation in young people were the main reasons businesses did not recruit. This is no surprise to me as the current education system offers young people very little opportunity to gain long-term work experience where they can develop a strong work ethic, softer skills and also a clear idea in their own minds of the direction they wish to follow.
I believe the solution is to reinvent the way we educate young people. To offer a system that empowers them to make choices, that encourages responsibility, innovation and direction and offers experience in a work environment. I propose to take the £6k per year, per pupil and place it within a flexible 'Skills Key' system. Each Skills Key will be worth £6k (or an average spending amount, according to region). The amount will also vary according to the pupil's family income, the poorer pupils gaining a top up, richer families receiving less. Fundamentally the system will offer the following arrangements:
• At the age of 14 pupils/parents will have the option of using their Skills Key to invest in work related training or apprenticeships, whilst continuing to study basic English, Maths and Science part time at school.
• At the age of 16 there will be a compulsory work experience year for all pupils. Funded by their Skills Key directly to an employer.
• Alternatively, at the age of 16 the pupil can use their Skills Key to start a new business. If a young person has a strong business plan then their Skills Key can be exchanged for a small business loan. Similar to a student loan, paying nothing back until the business is in profit.
• Aged 17 those wishing to pursue education will begin their A-levels, an apprenticeship funded by their Skills Key or take a Skills Key business loan.
• At 19 the brightest pupils will begin university.
The key element of this proposal is the compulsory work experience year. I believe this will radically improve a young persons employment prospects because not only will it equip them with vital skills and experience it will (I think more importantly) enable them to seriously consider their future career paths and the merits of further education. They would come out of the year with more confidence, maturity and a better sense of direction in life.
Clearly the main problem will be in finding the employers to provide the work experience. However they would be paid by the Skills Key to take on work experience students and the government could look at tax cuts for big partner organisations. I suspect that the scheme would be extremely popular with large employers who would look to stay in touch with successful work experience graduates. I also believe the cost of funding what is effectively an extra year of school for those who chose to proceed to A-levels would be entirely offset by the amount that actually preferred work and found immediate employment, but also from the savings made by the reduction of unemployment long term.
Another key proposal is to allow 16 and 17 year olds to cash their Skills Key for a business loan. I believe that there is a huge amount of innovation that is suppressed by the current education system. A study by the Princes Trust showed that 71% of young people said they were not given any information about starting a business at school. The study also showed that more than two thirds of young people believed that having a business would give them a sense of achievement and purpose and a quarter were actively considering starting a business. This leads me to believe that a lot of young people would seize this opportunity, providing they were given the necessary support. Through a partnership with the Prince's Trust Enterprise programme the government could easily provide the necessary support to unleash a wave of enterprise that might otherwise be still drifting in the education system.
At the age of 14 pupils should be able to take up apprenticeships and reduce their studies. Whilst I was at school I saw so many restless young people fidgeting through French and History who I believe, if it is their wish, should be allowed to begin practical on-the-job training whilst still studying basic Maths, English and Science. This will provide them with the necessary skills to succeed that a full time education simply will not.
Overall these measures would ensure that young people enter the jobs market, at whatever age they choose, with more experience, broader skills, better work ethic and with more confidence that they can succeed, and in so doing ensuring that the country succeeds as well.