Young people between aged between 16 and 24 form a disproportionate element of the unemployed statistics, especially during recessions. Successive UK and Welsh Governments have tried to address the issue with a wide range of initiatives, However, none has had the desired sustained effect. Most have provided short-term relief and a good story for the electorate.
This should not come as a surprise as few of the initiatives address the problem in a genuinely joined-up way and most are seemingly conceived in isolation from reality. Too many are focused on ‘work ready’ young people when more investment in preparation for the workplace is needed. Not that I am sure what constitutes a work ready young person. Governments across the UK must work together to prevent fracture lines in the support available. The problem is not unique to devolved administrations.
The youth agenda needs a clear strategy that harnesses the ideas, resources and expertise from all UK governments, requiring cross-departmental cooperation, local authority engagement, business involvement, third sector support and input from young people.
As ever, the starting point is who needs help? Where are those that need help? What does success look like? What provision exists? What resources are available? Who can help? In other words, the analysis must be thorough.
Once the requirement has been agreed there should be a twin track approach. We have lost our way with how we guide and nurture young people to grow up, become good citizens and feel part of society. We need a long-term strategy that reaches into schools and homes. The guidance and nurturing of our next generation must start in ‘the early years’. Primary schools and home is where children learn to understand the difference between right and wrong. Parents may need support in this area, but it is vital they understand that there are consequences if they are unable to provide this ‘early years’ support to their children. Parenting training must be on the agenda and it may need to be compulsory. Schools need to have clear boundaries on behaviour. Children need to grow up in the knowledge that they are responsible for their own actions and there are consequences to their behaviour and decisions. Teachers are there to impart learning, provide moral guidance and be role models for children, not just to follow the syllabus. We currently underpay and undervalue teachers. We need to motivate the very best people to become teachers and support them in their roles.
So the first part of the twin track approach will be to invest time and resources in the ‘early years’ to ensure that children grow up to respect others, to understand what citizenship means and to learn traditional values and standards. I am not proposing sanctions, quite the contrary. I favour the carrot to the stick. We need to reward children for success, whatever that success might look like. There is nothing more motivating than a slap on the back and a ‘well done’.
Schools need to enlighten children and inspire them to form a positive relationship with education. The learning experience must have some relevance to the children’s futures and linked to the future employment landscape. The UK economy is a mixed one but, we need to better understand the future employment landscape. We need to look at what skills will be needed to meet the needs of the future economy. Far too often children become young people with no notion of what a real job looks like or where their particular attributes might be best suited. Schools would do well to always have a member of the CBI on their PTA to help create and maintain this link. Self-employment and personal development must be part of the core curriculum.
Membership of a youth organisations has proven benefits for individuals and society. Embed some organisations within schools and make them compulsory, but make them fun and something children love. Reintroduce competitive sports from the youngest age. The emphasis must always be on participation, but competition is part of life and growing up.
Many young people today present complex issues that prevent them making the most of their innate abilities and the opportunities that do exist. Apathy is often inherited and even encouraged, whilst disengagement is assumed where a lack of confidence is the reality. Very few young people do not want to be successful. However, too many lack the social graces that would serve them and society well. Too many are labelled as; ‘troubled’, ‘unmanageable, ‘aggressive’…
I could go on. Often these labels become badges of honour to be lived up to. Change the context and environment for young people and then so often we see them lose their negativity and engage. We need to inspire young people instead of berate or psychoanalyse them. There will always be the hardest to reach young people who have endured terrible barriers and events in their young lives. We will always have to provide exceptional support for these. However, these barriers are not insurmountable.
So, our second twin track is to support the current generation to succeed in whatever guise that might be. The same rules of action and consequences have got to exist, but with such entrenched behaviours more patience is required. Finding out what individuals are good at is normally the key to the most challenging of young people.
Then invest in success. We need to give young people direction and hope, which manifests itself as ambition and personal expectation. This expectation needs to be related to getting a realistic job. We need young people to understand failure and how to deal with it as much as we need to have them feel and enjoy success.
At the moment our efforts are disjointed. There is an absence of a master plan. If there is one not everyone that can help has seen it or is part of it. It needs to be inclusive. There are good ideas out there and governments must find them and use them. There are people who can contribute, governments must find them and use them. Policies should be shaped by those with the knowledge not just those with the office. Third sector organisations are by and large left to scrap for tender opportunities when most exist because they want to make a difference not just win contracts. We are missing an opportunity to engage experienced people who have good practical ideas.
Too many central ‘schemes’ are based on a sound concept yet rarely survive first contact with reality. Offering young people choice within a scheme is all very well as long as it does not raise false expectation. The choice must also be achievable. What is a ‘work ready’ young person versus a non work ready young person? Perhaps nothing more than 24 hours!
Bracketing young people by dint of their social background, age, job focus or motivation is doomed to fail. In my experience young people learn so much more from each other, so mix them whenever possible. Today’s carpenter could be next week’s plumber. Don’t be too hasty to pigeonhole young people until we know a little more about them. We need to see more pre employment and pre training programmes to get to know our young people and for them to get to know themselves, including their own strengths and weaknesses.
To encourage young people to be what they want to be in life is absolutely correct, but only up to a point. Those young people who are looking to move to where opportunities exist have a wider choice. However, we should respect those who want to live in the communities in which they were raised. It is these young people who will need more help in terms of outcomes.
It is not sufficient to shape training provision by the expectations of young people. Realism must be a counterbalance. It is easy to see with one glance at Further Education Colleges course loading that a disproportionate number of young people want to be hairdressers, beauticians and sports and leisure operatives. But where are the jobs to match these courses?
Young people need guidance and advice. We need to involve business much more to help understand the future employment landscape. This partnership with industry needs to be within the school gates and FE colleges. FE College courses should reflect the likely jobs market. Paying colleges on job outcomes and less on intake and qualifications would help.
A twin track approach on a clear and all informed agenda is required. What we need are practical measures that work and harness the full potential of the various players within the sector. How to start? Recognising that with greater cooperation and consultation there could be a better way would be a good place to start. We desperately need to better understand what the problem is and who can help resolve it.