Government must match rhetoric on skills with action to tackle persistent youth unemployment
Youth unemployment has been a persistent and longstanding problem in the UK. The most recent figures suggest nearly half a million young people are looking for work, with the overall 16-24 rate standing at nearly 12 per cent.
It speaks to the severity of the problem that this marks a recovery from the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when rates reached nearly 15 per cent, and some groups were hit even worse, with the rate for young black people skyrocketing to over 40 per cent.
But we must not let this distract us from the reality of the situation for our young people. The UK’s youth unemployment rate is worse than that of Japan, Germany, the Czech Republic, Israel, Mexico and Switzerland, while the average rate for all black and minority ethnic groups combined stands at a shocking 26.4 per cent.
It is this enduring problem that the Lords Youth Unemployment Committee tackles in its report, “Skills for Every Young Person”, which we have published today, and identifies a range of longstanding challenges.
As the economy transitions towards a greener and more technologically advanced state, skills shortages and gaps persist that young people are not able to fill. We’ve heard loud and clear from employers and school leaders that many pupils are not leaving school with the right skills for work.
Essential skills like oracy, teamwork and problem-solving are not tested due to a focus on traditionally 'academic' subjects
Digital and creative subjects such as design and technology are deemed less important than other subjects in the government’s EBacc measure. While essential skills like oracy, teamwork and problem-solving are not tested due to a focus on traditionally “academic” subjects, above all other skills and talents our young people can and want to demonstrate.
While it is welcome that many will prosper via this route and go to university, the other half are being left behind. The further education sector has been devastated by cuts and beleaguered by an unfit funding system, and there are simply not enough apprenticeship places to meet demand. What’s more, young people told us that they are being actively discouraged away from technical routes in pursuit of the “bragging rights” associated with more “academic” pathways.
In a sense, we’ve heard this all before; there’s no denying that youth unemployment is a perennial concern for policymakers. Covid-19 has given us pause to think about the structural issues that were exacerbated by the pandemic, and what can be done to fix them.
We need a long-term plan for identifying, measuring and addressing skills shortages and gaps, bringing together the government’s promise of Local Skills Improvement Plans with a national action plan for meeting the needs they identify.
The national curriculum and school performance measures must be recalibrated so that they better reflect and meet the economy’s future needs. We need the apprenticeship levy to be weighted towards our young people first and foremost, and a new method of FE funding that delivers parity with the university route.
To tackle disadvantage as a barrier to work, we must ensure all young people - especially the most disadvantaged including those in care, those with additional needs and those in custody - have access to quality careers advice from primary school age, and a strong work experience offer. And, for those disadvantaged by their ethnic background, we call for a new Education and Workplace Race Equality Strategy that tackles discrimination and inequality head-on.
We make over 70 recommendations in our report, reflecting the mammoth challenge that our Committee was tasked with, and which governments have struggled to address for decades. To bring them all together, we call for a new Young People’s Commissioner to be the voice of youth and fight for their best interests, whatever route they choose to take when they leave compulsory education.
Last month, the Prime Minister pledged to focus on “skills, skills, skills”. It is time for the government to show that its ambitions go further than slogans, and to guarantee skills for every young person.
Lord Shipley is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Lords Youth Unemployment Committee.
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