Leader: One-stop minister needed to help the young jobless

YOUTH unemployment is emerging as our biggest social and economic challenge. So the report of the group chaired by Lord Smith of Kelvin looking at ways to improve support for young people at most risk of long-term joblessness is welcome. It is now keenly hoped that the Scottish Government commitment to give it “full consideration” will be more than lip service.

Scottish youth unemployment has reached 100,000. As the report says, the costs of inaction would be “enormous”. Among its recommendations are that a dedicated ministerial portfolio be set up to help young people access the labour market, rather than piecemeal add-ons to existing departments.

The existing system has all the clarity of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian empire at its height. When an employer wants advice on skills training, who does he ring? Is it John Swinney, Cabinet secretary for finance, employment and sustainable growth? Or Fergus Ewing, minister for enterprise? Or Aileen Campbell, minister for local government? Might the call be bounced to Mike Russell, secretary for education and lifelong learning? Should it not light up the phone of Angela Constance, minister for children and young people? Or perhaps even Alasdair Allan, minister for learning and skills (with added responsibility for Scots and Gaelic)? Clearly, much greater clarity is needed as to who in Scotland is in overall charge of such a critical area of policy. With so many departments to which it is accountable, it is effectively accountable to no-one.

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The report also advocates mentoring from a trusted adult role model and a focus on skills development throughout a child’s formal education. A useful suggestion – but one that broadens the net even further.

Apprenticeships and skills development are two of the most frequently invoked solutions by politicians to the problem of youth joblessness. But Scotland already has a wide and complex web of public-sector agencies, often competing. The problem is not an insufficiency of “helping hands” but in certain areas too confusingly many, and at the same time a large number of small and medium-sized companies keen to take on young staff are often deterred by the complexity of regulations.

Many of those currently in apprenticeship schemes are already in employment and are older than the 18 to 24 age group in need of most help. And it is SMEs, by far the biggest employer group in aggregate, whose voice needs to be heard and concerns taken into account when designing programmes to encourage such training. There is still an evident disconnect, with many would-be employers put off by the requirements to satisfy other government agencies and agendas. The government needs to cut through this confusing cacophony and ensure taxpayer funding gets to the right sectors, effectively and efficiently.