Robin Simmons: Quality matters for youth opportunities

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YOUTH unemployment is a matter of significant concern at home and abroad. Almost half of all young people in Greece, Spain and other parts of southern Europe are out of work.

Although the situation is less severe in the UK, and rates of both adult and youth unemployment have begun to fall, still almost one in five 16 to 24-year-olds is classified as NEET (not in education, employment or training).

It is also worth noting that youth unemployment is markedly lower in many other parts of northern Europe, notably in Germany, the Nordic nations, and other countries with which the UK has traditionally compared itself. In the Netherlands, for example, NEET rates are less than half those found in the UK.

But, whilst NEET rates are higher in the UK than in most comparable economies, there are significant variations between different parts of Britain, and Yorkshire and the Humber contains a number of NEET ‘hotspots’ – with Bradford, Doncaster and Hull having some of the highest levels of youth unemployment in the country.

The consequences of this situation are considerable – not only for the individuals concerned but for the economy and society more broadly. On the one hand, young people outside education and work are more vulnerable to social isolation, loss of confidence and low self-esteem, more likely to become young parents and to experience mental health problems. They are also more prone to long-term unemployment, and more likely to be in low-paid and insecure work when they are able to find employment.

There is, in other words, a significant ‘scarring’ effect associated with being NEET. On the other hand, lost tax receipts, increased benefit payments and other forms of welfare will, over time, cost the UK economy billions.

Such matters are of concern to policymakers and practitioners who work with NEET young people – whether they are training providers, social workers or careers advisers.

But youth unemployment has also long been a concern for academics too and I have, over recent years, been involved in research projects which have explored the experiences of NEET young people, including work funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Leverhulme Trust. The findings of this research challenge many populist stereotypes about the NEET population.

Whilst NEET young people come disproportionately from poor backgrounds and are more likely to involved in crime, drink and drug abuse, and other forms of anti-social behaviour, the research in which I have been involved has found this behaviour – and any perceived lack of commitment and motivation to work – to be derived as much from young people’s experiences of education and employment as much as from any innate or individual qualities.

Most NEET young people are not permanently inactive but ‘churn’ repeatedly between different sites of participation and non-participation, shifting between unemployment, various insecure and temporary jobs, and a series of training programmes, usually of variable quality.

My research found repeated negative labour market experiences often produce what the EU policy body Eurofound described as the ‘discouraged worker effect’. It also found whilst NEET young people may often feel angry and frustrated, most of them hold mainstream attitudes, values and opinions, and the vast majority aspire to the traditional trappings of adult life – including a job, their own home and a conventional family life. Contrary to popular stereotypes, young people outside education and employment are not drawn from some incipient underclass or think that ‘work is for mugs’. Such findings are uncomfortable for policy-makers as they are difficult to solve – especially in a labour market increasingly reliant on zero-hours contracts and other casualised employment.

But we need to be clear – the causes of youth unemployment are rooted in the nature of education and work as much as the intrinsic qualities of young people themselves. This is something I have argued in two books I have written on the lives of marginalised young people, NEET Young People and Training for Work and Education, and Work and Social Change. It is also the message I delivered at a Unicef conference in Sofia, where I worked with policy-makers from Bulgaria, Romania, Switzerland, the UK, and the Netherlands to examine approaches to tackling youth unemployment.

The event confirmed it is important to think not only about the skills and abilities of young people, but also the nature of the opportunities available to them. Nations with the lowest NEET rates, such as the Netherlands, recognise that focusing only on skills and training is not enough, and demand for labour must also be managed.

If policy-makers in Britain are serious about tackling youth unemployment they need to concentrate on creating high quality and rewarding opportunities for work. As with most other things in life, it’s quality that counts.

Dr Robin Simmons is Professor of Education at the University of Huddersfield.

THIS was the Conservative Party’s commitment to skills training in its election manifesto.

“We have given employers much more control over apprenticeship courses, so they teach skills relevant to the workplace.

“We will continue to replace lower-level, classroom-based Further Education courses with high quality apprenticeships that combine training with experience of work and a wage.

“We will ensure there is a University Technical College within reach of every city. We will abolish employers’ National Insurance contributions on earnings up to the upper earnings limit for apprentices under the age of 25.

“And we will roll out many more Degree Apprenticeships, allowing young people to combine a world-class degree with a world-class apprenticeship.”