Wednesday 15 July 2015

UN World Youth Skills Day: Enabling young people to achieve better skills and education and a more productive working life

Dr Stefan Speckesser, from the Institute for Employment Studies, celebrates UN World Youth Skills Day. He takes stock of the current situation in the UK and the EU for young people's skills and looks to the future.

Today has been designated World Youth Skills Day by the United Nations, marking the importance of fostering the acquisition of skills by young people in order to overcome youth unemployment, a global phenomenon and even more of a problem in developing countries. In the UK, we should commemorate the World Youth Skills Day and think about further institutional changes that could enable people to achieve better skills and education and a more productive working life.

In my view, this is about more than just acquiring skills for labour market entry. Education in late youth forms the main stage of human capital investment for future life trajectories and is a precondition for successful adult roles, including economic independence, family formation and, more generally, strong communities.

Young people in the labour market

The situation in the UK labour market has improved significantly in recent years, with an unemployment rate for those aged 16 and over of 5.5 per cent (February to April 2015), which was significantly lower than a year before (6.6 per cent) and only slightly above the level before the 2008/09 recession (5.2 per cent in late 2007). In the EU, only Germany has a lower unemployment rate (4.7 per cent for April 2015) at present.

Compared to this, the unemployment rate for 16 to 24 year olds continues to be much higher (16.1per cent in the months to April 2015), although we have seen a great improvement compared to its peak in late 2011 (22.5 per cent). However, the international comparison with Germany (7.2 per cent), Austria and Denmark (both 10.1 per cent for April 2015) shows that more can be done in the UK.

Clearly, the overrepresentation of young people in unemployment shows that we don't offer enough opportunities for today's young people to work and participate in prosperity. In the long-term, multiple scarring effects will influence the whole life-trajectory of today's young people and will make sure that 'the impacts of current high levels of youth unemployment will be felt by society for decades'.

Institutional change to improve young people's skills in the UK

In the UK, policy initiatives launched in the new Parliament, like the productivity plan, have a strong emphasis on skills and particularly aim to improve young people's skills. Key areas of institutional change are:

·   More young people should have good English and Maths.
·   More apprenticeships for young people and the introduction of a levy on large employers to fund new apprenticeships.
·   A system of professional and technical education offering clear routes into employment.

The impact of these initiatives will depend on successful collaboration between the key stakeholders, such as colleges and employers, on how the educational offer can be improved. We also need employers to give clear guidance to colleges and learners as to which professional standards and practice should be represented in professional and technical education. Modernised vocational qualifications, which will hopefully emerge from this institutional change, need to serve as a strong signal to employers about young people's skills and productivity. This is most crucial for people outside of apprenticeships, whose training in colleges or specialist providers has to meet industry standards in terms of technology and relevance.

There is a wide consensus that education reform and building better, stronger institutions will be the key element for helping young people to progress with skills, but I also believe that skills need to be more clearly linked to their experiences in work environments.

The crucial role of experience

In the 'Craftsman', Richard Sennett described skills as a 'trained practice' and emphasised the role of routine and practising in the work of crafting physical things, but also on forming relationships with others. His view supports the role of experience, like that expressed in the narrow translation of experience as 'Erfahrung' in German, i.e. the skill, knowledge and proficiency element of experience.

It is this element of education, which makes technical and professional education more successful in countries with Dual Apprenticeships, where it achieves better school-to-work transitions, lower youth unemployment and high returns to investment in vocational education and skills. As written in Steve McIntosh's blog in this series, this also explains the focus of all major parties on apprenticeships in the recent election and the government's recent pledge to increase apprenticeships, including a levy to fund them.

However, with a majority of young people learning towards technical qualifications outside apprenticeships, we have to make sure that 'Erfahrung' becomes a strong element of the education of young people. A recent survey of 3,000 firms by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) clearly shows that firms believe 'hiring a young person is a risky move due to their lack of experience, not to mention the investment of time and resource needed to train them'. Consequentially 'business people tend to favour more skilled and experienced applicants - and while they do sympathise, their primary function is to run a business, which means making business decisions'.

In conclusion, I believe we need to extend reform of skills policy beyond the focus on educational institutions, curricula, finance, standards, etc., to improve young people's opportunities for gaining practical experience more generally, regardless of whether they aim for an academic or professional education. The BCC study suggested a universal work experience programme in all secondary schools, which could be one option. Alternatively, schools could involve businesses more in the curriculum, invite more employers to school events or develop projects run in partnership with real firms. It will be important to study examples of such employer-school collaborations to further progress the improvement of skills policies for young people.

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