By Liam Byrne MP and Kezia Dugdale MSP
In May this year, a report by the International Labour Organisation declared youth unemployment a “crisis”. This is certainly a word used a great deal by politicians; but the fact that it is more than rhetoric is obvious. Is there anyone now who doesn’t know a young person looking for work?
And as sure as anything, from this crisis there continues to flow tragedy. The human cost is incalculable, taking a toll on mental and physical health; the trauma suffered by young people’s confidence – including those recycled from one 12-week training programme to another – takes a long time to heal.
It is a good bet that this morning, most of those one million young unemployed people got out of bed, turned on laptops or visited local libraries to check job websites and inboxes, for a sign that today things might be different. For more than 5000 young people in Scotland, this will have been a ritual repeated for over a year, with hope seeping away as each day goes by.
For some, they may have been lucky and snagged an interview, or perhaps beaten the tens or hundreds of other people chasing the same post and landed that long-awaited opportunity. But sadly for many this daily routine will go on.
With over one million young people unemployed, rightly they ask the difficult question of politicians like us: ‘when will there be jobs?’ Whether it’s graduate employment, unskilled work, or a first job in a shop or café, throughout the UK, youth unemployment remains a crisis.
ACEVO, the association of voluntary organisations, calculated earlier this year that youth unemployment would cost the Treasury £28 billion over 10 years. This has now been revised to £30 billion.
So the economic toll of this crisis is stark too. ‘Wage scarring’ is inevitable; a term used to describe how those who suffer unemployment in their early career go on to make less over their working lives than their more steadily employed counterparts.
We are therefore presented not only with a moral, but an economic imperative.
However to look at the reaction by the SNP at Holyrood and the Tory-Lib Dem coalition at Westminster, one would hardly know it.
When the youth unemployment rate went through the one million mark in November 2011, the coalition responded simply: “nothing to do with us, blame the Eurozone”.
In Scotland, Alex Salmond boasts proudly of appointing “the first Youth Employment Minister on these islands”. But a meagre budget spread over many press releases is not a policy, and his default position of “blame the London parties” is wearing thin.
The SNP’s flagship policy to tackle youth unemployment, delivering 25,000 apprenticeships each year of the parliament, has also brought more questions than it has answered. But in its zeal for a headline, what thought has been given to the industries of the future, and the hope for 100% renewable electricity by 2020?
The detail of the policy speaks volumes: 10,000 jobs rebranded as apprenticeships, going to those already in work for six months or more; construction, engineering and electrotechnical are now less than half what they were in 2007/08, as a percentage of total apprenticeships; retail and hospitality make up 20% of all apprenticeships; and spending is now £1000 less on each apprentice than in 2007/08.
Politicians have long been engaged in policy ‘bidding wars’, where the promise of x-thousand police and y-thousand teachers is pitted against z-thousand nurses, and so on. Johann Lamont this week rightly asserted this was not only unsustainable but dishonest.
The apprenticeship is a perfect example of this. Should greater numbers be sought at the expense of quality? What is the apprenticeship programme for, if not to produce the skilled workers, the engineers and technicians that are going to play a lead role in the economy of the future?
As politicians, we must be brave enough to lead the debate, and create the space needed to have a measured discussion about getting the most out of everything we spend and do, both for economic prosperity and to protect those most in need.
But right now, we are missing a trick: the potential of our young people is flowing away every day, untapped. And it isn’t just them that lose out, but our communities and our economy. Yes, the demand must be there, but smart, committed governments can create that demand. Only this will bear opportunities.
The human and economic cost of not doing something for our young people is unaffordable.
This country’s young people cannot wait for the Eurozone problem to resolve itself, or for an independence referendum that would supposedly bring only milk and honey with it. Youth unemployment is a crisis, and needs to be treated like one.