On the day that the Scottish Government publishes its Youth Employment strategy, KEZIA DUGDALE sets out the size of the challenge ahead and what Labour would do differently.

 

“Is it always going to be like this? When will there be jobs?”

That’s what you get when you give a group of young people on an employability programme the chance to ask a politician absolutely anything.

The situation is stark: 88,000 18-24 year olds out of work, up 8000 from the previous three months; a stalling economy; rising living costs; falling wages; cuts to public services and support; college bursaries and budgets slashed.

The picture facing Scotland’s youth is nothing short of a national crisis.

And a crisis demands action not excuses from a Scottish Government only too willing to throw their hands in the air and proclaim “if only we had the levers of power to do something about it.”

Despite their constant assertions, the Scottish Government are not powerless to change this situation. They can not only mitigate the worst of these effects but proactively reverse this trend and get our young people into work. But it takes the political will to turn the engines of government toward the same end with a coherent overarching strategy.

And such a strategy must start with the reversal of the ridiculous and counter-productive cuts proposed to college budgets and their students’ bursaries. This policy is a double-hit on the economy and our young people. Not only will it discouraging people from taking up places now, but in the future our economy may not be equipped with the necessary skills to take full advantage of that up-turn.

The Government are correct however to say that there’s no one size fits all solution to youth unemployment. Nobody in their right mind could argue that the needs of a 23 year old graduate are the same as a 16 year old care leaver.

What is essential however is a national youth employment strategy that seeks to progress the needs of both, in harmony, in Scotland’s wider economic interest. That’s what I hope we’ll get from the Angela Constance when she unveils her strategy today.

And I sincerely hope that the strategy recognises the crucial roles that the private, public and third sector all have to play and the Scottish Government’s role in driving the agenda across all three.

There’s no doubt that the private sector’s role is crucial and job creation naturally follows a prospering economy. But employers want recruits who are not only qualified for the job in hand, but also equipped with the softer skills to cope with a life of work.

That’s where the 3rd sector comes in – they uniquely recognise that young people are anything but a homogenous group.

To give just two examples, there are firstly those young people who are job ready but currently cut out of the job market. Predominantly because of the displacement which sees over-qualified graduates filling positions – only too grateful for the opportunity to work at all – they wouldn’t naturally fill in easier economic times. The challenge is to keep these young people as economically active as possible – engaged in quality, paid work which enhances both their CV and their confidence. That’s where schemes like the Community Jobs Fund prove so valuable – and should be extended beyond March of this year. Its future hangs in the balance of Ms Constance’s considerations.

Then there are those young people who are furthest removed from the job market, coming from areas where three generations of workless households are not uncommon; for whom school ‘wasn’t for them’ and until picked up by the system play computer games into the night and sleep till midday.

Getting these young people to believe in themselves and their lives enough to get to a training programme five days in a row at nine in the morning is a challenge. Put these young people straight into a work experience programme and you’ll fail them, and the employer willing to give them a chance, because they’re simply not equipped to cope.

Big organisations like Rathbone and Barnardo’s, and many other smaller more local focused organisations like the Canongate Youth Project, have impressive track records of lifting drifting young people out of inertia in to sustainable work. Filled with people who know that the key to success is not just a list of willing employers but a raft of support workers ready to get to know the young people they’re working with. Willing to work through their troubles with them to unleash their potential.

Any youth employment strategy worth its salt will recognise the long term value of this human investment in the lives of these young people too often let down by the system.

Finally I hope that – despite their assertions that ‘it is not for government to create jobs – the Scottish Government recognise the potential the public sector has for job creation. A fully formed Youth Employment strategy must ensure that every department and every government agency looks at its books and considers what contribution it could make to tackling this crisis.

Public sector apprenticeships, across all sectors, should grow. Every local authority should be encouraged to have their own youth employment strategy in place. Every Community Planning Partnership seeking to link their capital and employability programmes. Every faculty of Government focused on the prize of avoiding another lost generation.

It may suit the cause of the SNP Government to talk down the powers of the Scottish Parliament – but the reality is that Scotland’s future simply cannot wait for jam tomorrow. They need jobs today.

Kezia Dugdale is Scottish Labour’s Shadow Minister for Youth Employment – @kdugdalemsp