04/10/2013 07:57 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Serving and Learning: A New Skills Pathway for Young People on the Road to Employment

'Learn or earn' was one of the headlines of the Prime Minister's speech to the Conservative Party conference this week: a message to the under 25s that, under a future Conservative government, they should not expect benefits...

'Learn or earn' was one of the headlines of the Prime Minister's speech to the Conservative Party conference this week: a message to the under 25s that, under a future Conservative government, they should not expect benefits.

As always, the devil will be in the detail but, if this does become a mainstay of the Conservative manifesto, then the party also needs to take a fresh look at how to address the lack of demand in the youth labour market and the expectation of employers for young people to be 'job ready', equipped with the soft skills a service based economy requires.

Cameron acknowledged that there are over one million young people not in education, employment or training but let's dig deeper. According to the OECD, if you're aged between 15 and 29 and living in the UK you can expect to spend 2.3 years on average either unemployed or out of the labour market and their report this summer highlighted the 'tough transitions' young people face.

The next generation has too long been caught in a catch 22: 'no experience, no job; no job, no experience'. There is the potential for this policy to make that cycle even more vicious.

Cameron makes it sound so simple: "Go to school. Go to college. Do an apprenticeship. Get a job." Few young people I've come across as CEO of a youth and education charity "choose the dole". But, I agree with his call for "bold action". We have got to offer young people "new opportunities".

Raising academic attainment, more apprenticeships, improving work experience options and linking local businesses to schools should all be part of the package but we also need more innovative ways in which to connect young people to employers and prepare them for the world of work.

There is a road, well travelled in the US, but still largely unknown to the UK - service - the idea that through giving back to your community you can also be supported to develop the skills and experience that will allow you to thrive in a future career. Crucially it's made possible through a cross sector partnership of government, business and NGOs.

Here, all parties have grasped the importance of getting young people involved in society. However, the concept of combining the idealism of young people with helping them develop employability skills and giving businesses a real stake in that, is something we have yet to fully exploit.

My proposal is that all parties embrace the concept of a voluntary 'service year' as a further learning pathway, sitting alongside, for example, apprenticeships. Young people would gain skills to enable them to take a first step on to the job ladder, but they would also be empowered and equipped to help tackle some of society's most entrenched problems.

This is not an untested idea; 20 years ago, President Clinton founded AmeriCorps, which backs and federally funds a range of opportunities for US citizens to give back, often full time. It follows the 80:20 rule; 80 per cent of a person's time should be spent in service but in return, 20 per cent should be designated training and development support. President Obama recently challenged each of his Cabinet Secretaries to consider how service can help address some of their most stubborn departmental challenges.

New research has found that jobless Americans increase their odds of finding work by 27 percent if they volunteer and that those odds increase to 50% for those without a high school diploma.

In the UK, we need to free service from its 20th Century association with conscription and explore its potential for the 21st Century. In 2010, City Year, the organisation which originally inspired Clinton and AmeriCorps, launched in the UK. As CEO, I've seen its transformative effect on 18-25 year olds who've given a whole year, Monday to Thursday, to serve as role models, mentors and tutors in schools in deprived areas. Alongside (but definitely not in place of), school staff, they bring a 'near peer' contribution to pupils in need of positive young people to look up to.

Those young people gain transferable skills through service - confidence, project management and public speaking - but we also reserve Fridays for them and their development. Our corporate partners provide work shadowing, mentoring, employability training and networking opportunities and we provide those partners with a constant reminder of the talent, enthusiasm and dedication of young people. More than 95% of young people who've served have gone on to a place in education, employment or training after their City Year.

Community service is often talked about in a punitive way: people will be forced into service or risk losing benefits. It's high time we re-imagined the concept and its potential to put a new generation on the right track.