Ending exploitation is not the same as creating opportunity

Over the last five years, as an economist specialising in skills development, I devoted much of my energy to the problem of the so-called NEETS (young people not in education, employment or training). In a series of publications I argued that, unless there are radical changes in approach, the chronic problem of youth unemployment will continue to damage the life prospects of our children and grandchildren*. Tackling NEETs must be seen as a central problem – not a consequence of other policy aims. I concluded that more flexible labour markets and better information do not offer a solution.

The gravity of the underlying problem has subsequently been brought home to me by a retirement project undertaken by my wife and myself. We are both mentoring six students each at the local Fakenham Academy. They are fine young men and women who exhibit the hopes and aspirations and display the strengths and weaknesses of every generation of 16 and 17 year olds. However the economy is changing. For those who want to go to university the path is clearer, and for some this is a convenient way of postponing decisions about career choice. For a young North Norfolk student wanting to enter the world of work, however, the prospects are bleak. If the Fakenham Academy postcode is put into the Government’s ‘Find an Apprenticeship’ tool, with a specification of ‘science’ and ‘any level’ the nearest identified opportunity is 59.4 miles away, and the second 84.2. The message is clear: either move (with the prospect of struggling to manage on relatively low pay) or lower your aspirations.

Now there are some features of the Labour Party manifesto that are relevant and should be welcomed: the increase in the minimum wage and the ban on unpaid internships and zero hour contracts, for example. However the manifesto is vague and uncertain on the changing economy. It talks of the need ‘to create new, high-skilled, high-paid and secure work across the country’ but implies that this can be done through skills investment in the education system (known as the discredited ‘stockpile of skills’ argument) and indicative planning. It can’t.

In this area, at least, Labour’s manifesto is far from radical. There is an absence of an overall philosophy embedded in an understanding of the modern service-led and knowledge-driven economy; the manifesto could have been written in 1975. Friday the 21st April, as this current campaign was beginning, was the first day since the industrial revolution when electricity in the UK was generated without burning any coal. Three weeks later, on Friday 12th May, we witnessed the cyber attack on NHS systems. These events underline the way that the economy is changing and the need for seeing economic and social problems in a new light. We need a new holistic and less piecemeal approach to worklessness amongst young people. To borrow a phrase I learned at the Institute for Adult Learning, Singapore, we need to ‘recalibrate’ the process whereby 16-20 year olds enter the world of work. This is what being radical really means.

 

* See ‘A Black Paper on NEETs and Apprenticeships’ available as a free download at http://martynsloman.co.uk/Black%20Paper%20NEETS%20and%20apprenticeships%20September.pdf

 

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