One of the policy areas I am particularly interested in is youth unemployment. Today, as part of the Westminster Education Forum, I chaired a panel discussion on course development in higher education. One of the key questions was about engaging employers in the design and delivery of courses. Getting employers involved at this stage will ensure graduates leave with the necessary skills required for employment.
Currently, although youth unemployment figures are down to an almost all time low of 14.9%, the not so great news is that young people are disproportionately unemployed, trapped in the bottom half of the skills hourglass and less likely than previous generations to acquire new skills once they’ve got into work. Young people need careers, not just ‘any job’ but sustainable employment.
What can be done? There is significant consensus among organisations and charities on some key elements and particularly on the importance of employer engagement. We need a joined up, local approach. Education must be joined to the workplace. Local employers should work with schools to give experience and information about the local labour market. We also need greater ‘employer ownership of skills’. This means employers and industries need to agree and communicate which skills and qualifications they value and need. In a digital age this is particularly important for ‘future proofing’ not just our young people but the economy as well.
Clearly, thinking about different ways of engaging employers is important and in the Lords I asked if the government would insert a condition into all public procurement requiring bidding businesses to offer high-quality apprenticeships. This would serve to ensure more companies offer the kind of decent in work training opportunities our young people need. Greater collaboration between business and government should also aim to create more middle-ranged jobs, so there can be genuine progression up a career ladder and less of a trap in the low skilled ‘any job’ bulge at the bottom.
Another area that needs to be ‘joined up’ is overall responsibility for the problem across departments. The Department for Education, Department for Work and Pensions and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills all have accountability for some of the services which can transform a young person’s transition from school to work, but they all work to different objectives, and the young people most likely to end up in the unemployment statistics fall through the cracks. The success of London 2012 shows what we can achieve when we cut across Whitehall departments and invest responsibility in one person to allow them to achieve a clearly defined goal. The growing consensus, that we can completely eradicate youth unemployment, points toward the opportunity to create an even greater legacy – if it can be grasped.