Susan Watt: A generation is being scarred by lack of jobs

WITH the worst unemployment since the 1980s, attention is turning to the young out of work, writes Susan Watt

There is no greater waste of human potential than youth unemployment. Evidence from previous recessions, such as the 1980s, suggests that an early period of unemployment has an adverse impact on not only an individual’s future earnings, but their future health and well-being.

This “scarring”, as the economists now call it, can cause lasting damage to a young person’s life, so with youth unemployment now higher than at any point since the 1980s recession, it is rightly a matter of urgent public concern.

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Tomorrow leading politicians from both the Scottish and UK governments will gather in Dundee for Scotland’s first national convention on youth employment. The discussion tomorrow is likely to focus on two groups of young people.

Vulnerable school leavers aged between 16 and 19 years old, known as NEETs have complex problems which have challenged policy-makers for years, even during times of buoyant economic growth. The second group is a more diverse cohort of unemployed, young adults aged between 18 and 24 years, which includes graduates as well as young adults with no qualifications.

But there is a third group of young adults whose plight, until now, has remained largely hidden. ProjectScotland, the national volunteering programme, has believed for some time that there was a growing cohort of unemployed Scots in their mid-to-late twenties who were in danger of being ignored.

Research carried out for ProjectScotland by ScotCen, a leading social research organisation, shows that, since the recession, unemployment among 23 to 29-year-olds has risen just as sharply as it has among 16 to 22-year-olds. Data from the government’s own Scottish Household Survey shows that unemployment among young adults aged 23 to 29 has risen sharply from 6.7 per cent 2007, to 12.4 per cent in 2010.

And these broad indicators may mask other vulnerabilities such as an increase in the number of young adults working in low-paid or insecure jobs, unable to leave the family home. Many of us will know a well-qualified young adult forced to work in a coffee shop or bar instead of using the degree or college diploma they worked so hard to get.

Some of us may even be supporting a young family member as they struggle to get their first foot on the career ladder, a climb that only five years ago looked so effortless.

There is even a danger that the depth and breadth of unemployment and under-employment among young people will lead an inter-generational decline in living standards, as parents and grand-parents use their savings, not on their old age, but to support their children.

So what can we do about the problem? Well, like most family problems, firstly talking about it helps. ProjectScotland has asked ScotCen to do further research into this group of young adults, so that we, and others, can better understand the extent of the problem.

Government should play its part too. The Scottish School Leavers Survey used to track school leavers over a seven-year period as they entered adult life. That survey was stopped, apparently because the young people couldn’t be bothered to return the postal survey forms.

Social media offers a simple solution and with a little investment, policy makers could once more gather useful evidence about the real life experience of young Scots as they make the transition from school to adulthood.

ProjectScotland is playing its part. We have decided to extend our volunteer opportunities, so that from now on anyone aged between 18 and 30 years’ old can take part, and we have increased the number of opportunities to 1000 a year.

A ProjectScotland volunteering opportunity is not a job, but it can make a very important contribution in helping young people towards the world of work.

Each opportunity, which is with one of our 300 not-for-profit partners across Scotland, lasts up to six months.This is plenty of time for our volunteers to gain valuable experience in those “soft” skills so essential for their future career.

And we want to add 500 new volunteer mentors to our existing network of Scots who support our young volunteers. As Paul, a pension fund manager for a FTSE 100 company and one of our current mentors, says, “mentoring is a very rewarding way of helping young people benefit from all the experiences you have gained throughout your own work and life.”

ProjectScotland is investing all its resources in trying to help as many young Scots as it can. But we are just one organisation. The scale of unemployment among young Scots requires a gargantuan national effort.

We welcome the efforts so far by both the Scottish and UK governments to tackle youth unemployment, but more needs to be done. We need to invest in quality programmes that are tailored to the needs of young people rather than the providers.

Past experience shows that a “one-size-fits-all” model does not work; the needs of a vulnerable teenager with no qualifications are different to those of a 26 year old with a masters degree. The use of sanctions to force young people on to work schemes is wrong. It is not the fault of our young people that they are unemployed.

But first we need to recognise the real scale of the problem, and to understand better what unemployment, and under-employment, means for the well-being of young adults, their families and our country. Only then can we develop public policies that work for our young people.

• Susan Watt is chief executive of ProjectScotland