How do we motivate and skill the UK’s idle young people?

Gordon Brown has thrown billions at them, while the BBC sent a man with a microphone. What does this tell us about motivating and skilling the nation’s one million-plus idle youth?

One of the enduring mysteries of today is that it takes a Pole a couple of days to find work in booming Britain while hundreds of thousands of native youths can take years to find paid employment.

We all know why: Polish immigrants aren’t eligible for benefits while UK youngsters can live at home, draw a jobseeker’s allowance and lead a not unpleasant life with others of their ilk.

This was spelt out in stark terms in a recent BBC Panorama programme, which focused on the plight of NEETS – those aged 16-24 who are Not in Employment, Education or Training. There are more than 1.2 million of them in the UK – up 45,000 on the 1997 figure.

According to research published by the Prince’s Trust earlier this year, NEETS’ publicly-funded idleness costs taxpayers £3.65bn a year. It said 11% of 16-19-year-olds can be classed as NEETS.

In 1997, Gordon Brown launched his New Deal welfare-to-work scheme, backed by a £5bn tax windfall from utility companies. Well even Golden Brown can’t win them all. Panorama tried to do what the former chancellor couldn’t – get some youngsters into paid employment. This push-me-pull-me drama was played out on the streets of Swindon, where reporter Vivian and his BBC job squad tried to get four lads into work.

This quartet – two aged 18 and two 20 – had lain idle for two years after finishing school at 16 and 18 respectively, and living a welfare-to-welfare life.

One of the lads, Tim, was very lucid and honest: “I could ponce off the system for the rest of my life,” – and did as Vivian asked and set about getting a job at hi-tech Swindon juice bar Energy Kitchen.

This was run by two nattily-dressed Germans, who said lots of Poles had applied for jobs at the bar but no locals. The Poles were highly educated and prepared to work for the £5.35 wage on offer.

Of the other three, 20-year old Ben found work at a BMW plant. The other two, 18-year-olds Michael James (MJ) and his cousin Glen weren’t interested in kitchen work, and so focused on Swindon’s manufacturing sector. MJ found work at Honda, while Glen took casual work through an agency.

What the programme highlighted are the flaws in the system that allow the NEETS phenomenon to flourish at a time of high employment. These are:

  • The minimum wage is too low to attract home-grown staff to do boring work
  • Waves of immigrants are depressing wages in many sectors
  • Benefits are too easily available
  • The increasing casualisation of much work results in less training and continuity of employment for those youngsters employed as casual labour
  • There is insufficient worthwhile training available to youngsters joining the workforce in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs
  • The flawed supposition that everyone wants to work.

Nevermind, in October, the events arm of outsourcing company Capita will hold a conference on NEETS where ways and means of reducing the species will be discussed. It is aimed at public agencies who work with NEETS. They will be advised on how to work with local employers to persuade them to take on more youngsters and give them worthwhile training and learning and development. Among the questions to be addressed is: “How do you engage the disengaged and hard to reach?” Well I’d say Panorama seems to have the answer: get some bloke to bang on their doors and take them to where the jobs are.

Also the EU has just announced it will stump up £2m, much of which will fund projects to get NEETS into work. This will be music to the government’s ears, as they want to cut NEET numbers by 20% by 2010.

Whatever – raising the school leaving age to 18 will achieve the same.

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