It often strikes me how very lucky I was to be a school-leaver when I was – over 20 years ago - before University fees came in, when it was easier to get a job as a graduate and getting onto the property ladder was far more accessible. Compared to now, it was a different world! After graduating I worked for the summer as a waitress in a hotel near to where my parents lived in Scotland, and managed to save up enough money to support myself for a few months after.
I arranged to get some un-paid work experience with a regeneration project in the West End of Newcastle and worked there full-time for 3 months. I learnt a lot and met many people who became colleagues in future years. Luckily I secured paid employment not long after, and immediately had the security of a permanent job which played a big role in helping me to develop my skills for future employment opportunities, and secure a mortgage a few years later.
Fast forward to 2015 – what a different scenario. For example, the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) which funded A-level study and income assessed maintenance grants for University has now gone. EMA was notoriously cut in the early days of the Coalition government and under the latest budget, half a million young people from disadvantaged backgrounds will no longer by entitled to the income-assessed £3,387 maintenance grant. Students could now face up to £51,000 of debt over three years – if they are even able to go to University.
Further education is also faltering. Sixth-form colleges are seeing their budgets uncompromisingly slashed, with spending on sixth forms set to fall by 13% by the end of this Parliament. A recent report by Professor Alison Wolf even went so far as to say further education could face ‘collapse’.
If I were 18 now, my future could look very different – the figures don’t exactly paint a picture of prosperity. In 2015, young people (aged 16-24) are three times as likely to be unemployed – especially those who are less educated. The North East of England has the highest level of youth unemployment across the UK. 4.2% of 18-24 years olds claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. Those who want to enter the professional sector are increasingly expected to work for free or live on travel expenses alone, under seemingly endless and exploitative internships – a task which is only possible with the backing of parents wealthy enough to support them. Young working-class people who make it into the workforce only face further discrimination once there – a new survey revealed that children from wealthier families, but with less academic ability than their gifted but poorer peers, are 35% more likely to become high-earners by age 42. For many, it’s a frustrating reality that now traditional opportunities and educational aspiration are increasingly more accessible to more privileged sectors of society.
Innovative approaches ….
Too many young people are still unemployed and Conservative policies such as the Work Programme and Youth Contract are failing to deliver. As Labour MEPs for one of the worst affected regions in the UK, Jude Kirton-Darling and Paul Brannen have made tackling youth unemployment a top priority and will do everything possible to ensure the issues are heard in the European Parliament. Youth unemployment in the EU has reached record highs since 2008 - for – example, in Greece and Spain as many as one in every two under 25s is out of work. The European Commission has positioned youth unemployment at the very heart of EU policy
The North East has been allocated a specific EU Fund which can only be accessed by a region where areas had a youth unemployment rate above 25% in 2012. There are only four areas in England which qualify for the Youth Employment Initiative (YEI), and two of them are in the North East, which illustrates the magnitude of the issue for the region. Both County Durham and Tees Valley will receive YEI funding of £7.7 million and £12.59 million respectively. Young people within these areas must be aged 15-24 and be unemployed or inactive – usually they will be not in education or training (NEET) as well. However, in some circumstances, young people in education or training may participate if they are not on full time education or training courses and are at risk of becoming NEET (for example, they have no qualifications, or are from disadvantaged groups or marginalised communities). Full time students are excluded from YEI support.
The YEI initiative will support the ambitions of the Youth Guarantee , adopted by the European Council in June 2013, based on successful schemes in Finland and Austria. The Youth Guarantee is an EU recommendation to Member States that they take an active role in securing the future of their young generations, and that those aged under 25 receive an offer of employment, continued education, an apprenticeship or a traineeship within four months of their becoming unemployed or leaving formal education. Hartlepool Council, with a youth unemployment rate of 14.7% (1,215 young people), secured funding from the Youth Guarantee Scheme in 2012 to work with 200 year 11 pupils who were at risk of becoming disengaged once leaving school. But the Conservative Government needs to make implementing the Youth Guarantee a higher priority and change their centralist approach to make better use of local expertise on youth issues across the UK.
County Durham and Tees Valley have identified what will be the most effective interventions that meet the particular needs of their area, and that complement and enhance existing provision. Some examples of work the YEI initiatives will be supporting in the North East include support for vulnerable young people to raise achievement and realise aspirations through a programme of independent learning plans, supporting transitions and providing support to address distance from the labour market and targeted work experience who are identified as being at risk of becoming NEET.
The YEI will be more innovative than mainstream ESF as the funding is more flexible and the partnerships delivering YEI will be engaging a range of local specialist providers who deliver niche work to young people, for example, Talent Match. The YEI initiatives will be working to secure volunteer places for young people with SMEs and the social enterprise sector, as well as self-employment and entrepreneurship opportunities. Both regional YEI initiatives will hopefully be able to start at the beginning of 2016. Other EU funding programmes such as the Employment & Social Innovation Programme (EaSI) also aim to support the modernisation of employment and social policies with a focus on fighting youth unemployment.
On 15th September, the Labour Party MEPs hosted a dedicated Youth Unemployment workshop in Brussels which examined a range of the complex associated issues. Fourteen young people from the North East, representing trade unions, the Sunderland youth group Youth Almighty, and Barnardo’s, discussed with their peers from Finland and Greece, the problems associated with long-term youth unemployment, precarious work and zero hours contracts, finding work and youth entrepreneurship. The young delegates asked some hard-hitting questions of the panel of experts who attended, including an expert member of the Cabinet of Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility from the European Commission. A report of the day will be submitted to the European Commission’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs to inform and influence future EU policy within this area. Labour MEPs are leading calls for a ban on ‘zero hours’ contracts, which now affect a third of young workers in the UK.
The Labour Party has a clear plan to help young people and improve their prospects into the future. For example, Labour would guarantee a real paid starter job to every 18-24 your old who has been claiming Jobseekers Allowance for more than a year, build a new post-18 apprenticeship and vocational education system to drive up their number and quality and create a new generation of skilled workers by ensuring every large firm that wins a major contract from the Government must commit to providing apprenticeships and training young people for high-skilled jobs.
So in conclusion, there are some extremely tough hurdles facing young people in accessing the job market across Europe, but particularly in the North East. The innovative approaches of EU funding schemes and policy such as the Youth Guarantee, supported further by the Labour Party at a national level, will hopefully go a long way in delivering a lower rate of youth unemployment across the region, and enable young people to realise their aspirations within our society.