This paper argues that successive governments since the 1980s have struggled to establish the necessary foundations to enable the majority of young people to make effective and supported transitions from education to the labour market and, further, to create labour market conditions that protect and nurture young people's potential. The paper sets its analysis within a time-frame that began in 1981 and has come full circle in 2010 with the Labour Government's announcement of the Young Person's Guarantee. Whilst acknowledging that current economic conditions, and the predicted severe cuts in public spending, will make it difficult for an incoming government to make significant changes, the paper argues that new approaches are required to revitalise both the economy and individual life chances.
Keywords: Youth; skills; recession; apprenticeship; demand
A new general election campaign poster for the Labour Party was launched on Easter Saturday warning voters that the election of a Conservative government under David Cameron, "would take Britain on a time-travel journey back to the socially divisive early-80s when the nation was scarred by youth unemployment and social unrest" (www.labour.org.uk/dont-let-him-take-britainback-to-the-1980s). Some might argue that Labour's choice of words is rather risky given that the latest figures for unemployment in the United Kingdom for 18-24-year-olds stand at 715,000 (17.5 per cent), close to the level in 1981, whilst, in England, 177,000 16-18-year-olds are officially categorised as NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) (see ONS, 2010; DCSF/BIS, 2010). In addition, the Government has been faced with hundreds of apprentices being made redundant and employer demand for apprentices drying up just at the point when it was hoping to expand numbers. Furthermore, the announcement in the Budget on 24 March of the 'Young Person's Guarantee' for 18-24-year-olds saw the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, set his own time machine back to 1981 and the measures introduced by the then Manpower Services Commission (MSC) to reduce youth unemployment.
The 'guarantee' for l 8-24-year-olds comes on top of the guarantee of a place in training for 16 and 17-year-olds that has been in place since the 1980s and was introduced when the Thatcher Government removed the right of young people who had left school to claim welfare benefits. Some 16 and 17-year-olds are eligible for assistance in extreme circumstances, but the vast majority who remain out of work or do not join a training scheme become classified as NEET. The new 'guarantee' is for 18-24-year-olds who have spent six months officially looking for employment and are in receipt of the 'Jobseekers Allowance'. It 'offers':
* the opportunity to apply for new jobs created through the Future Jobs Fund;
* support to apply for an existing job in a key employment sector;
* work-focused training;
* a place on a Community Task Force;
* help with self-employment;
* internships for Graduates and non-Graduates.
From April 2010, young people will be required to take up one of these offers by the end of the 10-month point of their claim. According to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) website, "This will ensure that no young adult is permanently disadvantaged by the recession" (http://research.dwp.gov.uk/campaigns/ futurejobsfund/youngpersons.asp). The guarantee forms part of the Government's 'Backing Young Britain' campaign, which the DWP describes as "a rallying call to businesses, charities and government bodies to create more opportunities for young people" (ibid), who are being asked to commit to at least one of the following initiatives:
1. to become a volunteer mentor for school or university leavers to help them find their feet in the jobs market;
2. provide work experience places, volunteering places or a work trial to help young people learn about work, make contacts and fill their CV;
3. offer an internship for a graduate;
4. create a new internship for 18-year-olds and non-graduates to give them a chance to prove themselves;
5. provide an apprenticeship for 16 to 24-year-olds;
6. joining a Local Employment Partnership to make sure job vacancies are advertised to local unemployed people;
7. bid for one of the 100,000 lobs for young people in the Government's Future Jobs Fund.
Whilst both lists could be said to show an active desire on the part of government to respond to the challenges of the recession, they are not intended to tackle the underlying problems that have dogged the country for so long. An acute sense of deja-vu permeates analyses of labour market and skills' policies over the past ,30 years (see, inter alia, Finegold and Soskice, 1988; Keep, 1999; Wolf, 2002; UKCES, 2009). When the economic crisis and subsequent recession began to hit the UK in 2008, it was the rapid growth in youth unemployment that dominated the media, just as in the 1980s, though so far, today's headlines have not included reports of city-centre riots. Another recurring theme is the complaint from employers that young people leave the education system without the necessary skills to enter the labour market. In 2009, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) returned to the theme of its 1989 report, 'Towards A Skills Revolution', by calling for schools, colleges and universities to ensure they arm their students with 'employability skills' (CBI, 1989 and 2009).
This paper argues that successive governments since the 1980s have struggled to establish the necessary foundations to enable the majority of young people to make effective and supported transitions from education to the labour market and, further, to create labour market conditions that protect and nurture young people's potential. Whilst the focus is largely on young people, some of the argument, particularly in relation to the discussion of competence-based qualifications and the role of employers vis-a-vis the demand for skills, also applies to adults. The paper sets its analysis within a time-frame that began in 1981 with the publication of two landmark MSC reports: A New Training Initiative: A Consultative Document, and A New Training Initiative: An Agenda for Action. Much has been written about the work of the MSC and the Thatcher Government's development of education, training and employment policies in response to the economic crisis of the early 1980s (see, inter alia, Ainley and Corney, 1990; Finn, 1987). It is important to remember, however, that the legacy of those policies continues to inform and underpin contemporary policymaking in relation to the design, organisation and delivery of vocational education and training and employment initiatives for young people and adults. (1) This continuity deserves more attention for two key reasons. First, greater knowledge and understanding of the continuities would enable more people to challenge the chimera of newness as successive ministers introduce their latest initiatives. Second, and relatedly, the appropriateness and likely effectiveness of the new initiatives could he subject to greater scrutiny.
The paper is divided into four sections. It concludes with an appraisal of the extent to which New Labour can be said to have made improvements over thirteen years in government since 1997.
A game of two halves: the important role of the Level 2 benchmark
In 2001 and 2002, the National Institute Economic Review published a series of articles assessing attempts by government to improve Britain's performance in vocational skills and the quality of school-leaving standards in the decade following 1991. Governments had intervened as never before in the work of schools and in the design and delivery of vocational qualifications because of concerns about Britain's industrial competitiveness, the employment prospects of less-skilled workers, lack of progress in narrowing social inequalities, and the higher levels of school-leaving attainments and economic productivity in other comparable countries. In his introduction to the series, Prais (2001, page 73) wrote:
"Of course it should not be expected that deep-rooted problems of this kind can be resolved in a single decade. But whatever has been achieved positively so far, worries continue to be expressed from time to …