David Cameron has set his stakes high when it comes to getting young people into work. Announcing plans for a new programme aimed at pushing young people into work, on February 17 the prime minister said the Conservatives would “effectively abolish long-term youth unemployment” in the next parliament.
Labour has also set out its own proposals to guarantee jobs for unemployed youth. Yet neither proposal provides the overall solution that young people need to get well-paid, sustainable employment.
As participation in post-16 education has grown, young people who leave early to seek employment have become increasingly marginalised and regarded as a drain on society. While it is fairly easy to portray 16 or 17-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training (NEET) as a small group of disaffected idlers, it is more difficult to dismiss older people in this way.
In September 2014, there were 932,000 NEET 16 to 24-year-olds, of whom 830,000 were aged 18 to 24. Although these rates are well below southern European levels, the waste of talent and threat of long-term vulnerability they represent is still alarming.
30 hours of community work
The Conservatives had already committed to abolishing the Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) for 18 to 21-year-olds and replacing it with a “Youth Allowance” at the same level. Their new policy announcement has gone further, and a future Conservative government will require 18 to 21-year-olds who have previously been without work or education for six months to do 30 hours of community work a week as soon as they start claiming benefits.
What this work would involve is not entirely clear, but examples have been given of making meals for the elderly or joining local charities. If the Youth Allowance is the same as the current rates of £57 per week, then 30 hours community work gives £1.91 per hour. At 30 hours a week, and going by current rates this would compare to an equivalent of £81.90 for apprentices and £153.90 for national minimum wage.
The proposal would currently affect around 50,000 young people, according to the Conservatives, a relatively small number compared with overall rates but potentially targeting a highly vulnerable group. Essentially, it assumes that what stands between NEET young people and sustainable employment is a lack of work ethic and “employability”. According to Cameron: “What these young people need is work experience and the order and discipline of turning up for work each day.”
Been here before
Labour was quick to point out that the government had piloted a similar scheme in London in 2012-13, but there had been “no significant impact” on employment outcomes. In fact, this is not the entire story. Evaluation of the scheme showed a number of benefits for young people who took part in work placements. Nearly all felt more able to cope with the routine of going to work and many talked about having greater motivation and increased confidence.
Yet as Labour critics have noted the scheme had no significant impact on employment outcomes and provided very limited forms of work experience, according to a preliminary analysis for the government.
Indeed, 58% of participants were placed in charity shops, and almost half of all those who undertook placements felt that they were unsuited to their needs. What these earlier experiences show is the importance of the quality of work provided and the nature of the training and support given to young people. Without something to put in it, endless polishing of a CV will not improve anyone’s employability.
Compulsory Jobs Guarantee
What, then, of Labour’s alternative? Under the party’s Compulsory Jobs Guarantee, every young person out of work for more than 12 months would be offered a “starter job”: government-subsidised paid work with training for six months. As with the Conservative proposal, continued receipt of benefits would be conditional on taking up this offer.
Once again, the quality of the programme and the impact on employment outcomes would be crucial questions, although Labour points to a similar scheme in Wales as evidence that this kind of initiative can work. By contrast, Conservative critics claim that a work-subsidy scheme introduced in 2009 under the previous Labour government, the Future Jobs Fund, “squandered millions” on ineffective provision. A 2012 evaluation by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research found it’s impact had been “substantial, significant and positive”.
Although the emphasis is different, with Conservative rhetoric highlighting the need to eradicate a “something for nothing” culture and Labour using the expression “guarantee” to soften the compulsory element, there are clearly strong similarities between these proposals. Both parties are surely right to target the longer-term unemployed element of the NEET category, in recognition of the greater vulnerability of this group compared with others, many of whom are outside education and employment for short periods.
But in a number of respects, both proposals miss the point. Without structural increases in employment at particular skill levels, all that employability programmes can do is make certain individuals more competitive, perhaps increasing their own chances of employment but eroding the advantages of other young people who are already “work ready”.
Of course, work-readiness is only one element of employability. If we are to improve young people’s chances of sustainable and rewarding employment, equipping them with specific skills needed by employers is essential. Strengthening and further expanding the apprenticeship system, alongside measures to stimulate employer demand for skills, is a far better option in the longer term, although perhaps less headline-catching at election time.
Neither proposal addresses another debate that will be central to the election: improving the prospects of millions of people experiencing in-work poverty. The kind of jobs or work experience discussed above are unlikely to lead to well-paid employment for the majority of their participants.
The way young people and adults become trapped in a “low pay, no pay” cycle have been well documented by researchers and churning between insecure work and unemployment is one of the most likely outcomes for participants in the proposed schemes. They redefine, rather than eradicate, youth unemployment, and the young voters they affect deserve far better from both parties.