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Martyn Sloman
Visiting professor and principal consultant to Training Journal L&D 2020 project.
Martyn Sloman

NEETs and Apprenticeships

Authors: Martyn Sloman

23 September 2014

Forces in the global economy have led to a significant deterioration in the prospects for the transition to work for today’s younger generation. Many of the quality entry-level jobs have simply disappeared. As an economy develops, manufacturing contracts as a percentage of gross national product and services expand. The wider implications have been a subject of political debate: what has received less attention is the way that these powerful economic forces have affected entry-level jobs for school, college and university leavers. Policies will only be effective if they are based on a recognition that youth unemployment is a result of structural causes extending beyond the current economic situation.

Such structural changes have their impact everywhere – not just in the traditional heavy industry areas. Today more people are employed in Indian restaurants in the UK than in the coal, steel and shipbuilding industries combined. These three industries were the source of many apprenticeships in the craft trades.
Unless there are radical changes in approach, the chronic problem of youth unemployment or NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training) will continue to damage the life prospects of our children and grandchildren. Bluntly we are giving our 16-24 year olds a rotten deal. As well as a lack of long-term job opportunities, young people are increasingly exploited in a weak labour market – for example through unpaid internships. Tackling NEETs must be seen as the central problem, not a consequence of other policy aims. In formulating this new approach we must begin by recognising that decent young people are struggling against long odds to find work.

Sadly, there is a reluctance in the political and professional arenas even to engage in the necessary debate to address this issue. A cosy unquestioning consensus has emerged that a combination of economic growth and yet another round of schemes and campaigns will solve the problem. In particular the promotion of ‘apprenticeships’ has become a way of pretending that the current cocktail of policies will offer a solution. They won’t.

A key element in this consensus has been a devaluation of apprenticeships. The term has now lost its traditional meaning and been replaced by ‘apprenticeships lite’. There are important questions that must be addressed: Should apprenticeships be high quality vocational training leading to a qualification with currency in the employment market? Alternatively, should apprenticeships be a form of subsidised training that takes place within a certain framework or standard? Far-reaching solutions would embrace the former perspective and encourage the creation of ‘aspirational apprenticeships’. Subsidies should be directed towards the development of unemployed young people not towards training existing company staff for commercial reasons.

More generally we need a new holistic and less piecemeal approach to worklessness amongst young people, one which provides a clear sense of direction and an effective framework for intervention. For example, there are now 48 separate schemes for an employer to take on or train a young unemployed person.

The gravity of the problem demands radical solutions. These should include a commitment, expressed in the form of a Charter, to protect young workers, a new framework for the delivery of job-creation and welfare-to–work schemes, and a restatement of company obligations (to include a change in the Companies Act).

Above all we need to create a new ‘psychological contract’ with the younger generation. This should recognise that personal learning and development takes place through work and pledge to give young people the support and information they need to make informed decisions about their future.

The full paper is available in Training Journal