David Miliband may have joked in his opening remarks that “there are jobs we all apply for that we don’t get,” but for more than a million 18 to 24-year-olds, rejection letters have been a common feature of this recession.
Speaking at a TUC seminar on youth unemployment held yesterday in London, the MP for South Shields raised many valid points on how to try and solve the problem.
But he failed to set out how we can challenge one of the biggest obstacles facing the young members of our future workforce – the government’s slow deconstruction of adequate careers advice.
Miliband said one of the reasons for the sharp rise in youth unemployment was because “welfare state interventions are too late and too weak”.
Early intervention is often cited as a strong solution for a number of social problems, but when it comes to helping young people make their first steps towards the working world, the right advice and guidance is being chipped away.
First was the gradual taking-apart of Connexions services, which were early victims of local authority budget cuts. Connexions used to be commissioned by councils to provide personal and impartial careers advice within schools and colleges, as well as from high street centres for those not in education.
But according to a report (pdf) published by the University of Derby last August, 50 out of 144 local authorities surveyed had already completely closed their Connexions centres and at least 65 had reduced or removed universal careers services. That was a year ago – the closures have continued.
Instead, the Education Act 2011 places a duty on schools and colleges to provide independent careers guidance for pupils in years nine to 11 from this September. But the legislation does not require advice to be delivered by professionals or face-to-face – unlike the services provided by Connexions.
• The coalition is failing to tackle youth unemployment 26 Oct 2011
• Budget 2011: Osborne’s contempt for the nation’s youth 27 Mar 2011
And the other option? The government’s new online National Careers Service that launched in April. This aims to provide phone and online advice 370,000 young people – a few hundred thousand short of the 956,000 the TUC says are unemployed.
When asked by a former Connexions employee from the floor if he thought the government has made its position on youth unemployment worse as a result of these changes, Miliband paused for a long time before replying:
“I can understand that [effective advice and guidance] has somehow been compromised by vesting that in schools, but I think its horses for courses. Some connexions services were excellent, some weren’t. I don’t think there is one institutional model that can get it right.
“What I do believe is that unless you get employers – public, private and charity sector – engaged with schools, in other words, directly in a relationship with young people, you’re going to fail.
“Because however good a mediator is between those things it doesn’t carry the authenticity of an employee engaging directly with young people.”
A fellow panel member was keener to fight back. Balbir Chatrik, director of policy and participation at the homelessness charity Centrepoint, raised the issue several times and urged attendees to sign Centrepoint’s youth-led campaign to restore face-to-face careers advice for all under-25s.
“It is actually quite critical… Our young people say: ‘You know what, some of us have left school by the time we’re 14 or 15.’ They can be independent and they’re not going to go online. What they want is face-to-face careers advice and guidance. That will make a massive difference.
“We need a holistic service.”
She also added that while some of Centrepoint’s service users had reported negative experiences with Connexions services, many favoured them because they could “go there for more than just careers advice”.
This week the government launched a new initiative, Inspiring the Future, which aims to encourage employed adults to give talks about their careers in state schools. And later this summer, Plotr will launch a government-funded, interactive website supported by companies such as McDonald’s and energy-provider Centrica, where 11 to 24-year-olds can explore careers options. Is this enough?
The problem of youth unemployment is hard to tackle and adequate careers advice is by no means the only solution. But surely one way to alleviate the crisis in the long-term is to stop it at the source. And the only way to help young people make the right personal choices is through one-to-one, trained advisers.
If not, we may well see youth unemployment figures rise again as the next academic year of students is left making life-changing decisions without professional support.