Wasted youth: The potential of a generation of Scots could be lost forever

As the number of young jobless in the UK hits one million, Dani Garavelli and Zara Janjua analyse the implications

T HE statue of shipbuilding magnate Sir William Pearce still casts a paternal eye over Govan Cross – a reminder of Glasgow’s heavy industry heyday. But the credit union, the pawnbrokers and the Ladbrokes which stand in the street beside him are testament to how much the area has changed. Them, and the steady procession of young people who stream into the Jobcentre Plus, only to come back out again, shaking their heads.

One of those desperate for work is 19-year-old Mark Kelly, who left school three years ago with hopes of joining the construction industry. He went on a course, but, by the time he had completed it, the country was in recession and building projects had stalled. Since then he has been on several work placements – including one in a children’s nursery – but he has never had paid employment.

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“I’ve had dozens of interviews since I left school, but most of them don’t even bother to get back to me,” says Mark, who lives with his grandmother. “I would take anything now – I just want to start earning money, but everyone is looking for experience.”

Nearby at the Govan Youth Information Project, which provides support and advocacy for jobless youngsters, co-ordinator Stewart Clark understands what Mark is going through. “There are some people who have been coming here for two years now. We have helped them with CVs and applications, but they are getting despondent. Sometimes, they end up going on Facebook to look for work. I think they are beginning to give up hope.”

This sense of despair is by no means confined to Govan. Last week, it emerged that the number of people aged between 16 and 24 who were unemployed across the UK had hit the one million mark. In Scotland, the number of young people looking for work has doubled to 100,000 since 2007, renewing fears of a “lost generation”. The number of jobless rose by 5,000 in the three months to September, while a TUC report found youth unemployment had increased in every single local authority in the last 12 months.

At Stafffinders recruitment agency, which has offices across Scotland’s central belt, business manager Carole Dyvor says employers now receive an avalanche of job applications for every job vacancy. “This is a very tough time for young people and for them to get a break into the job market is really difficult,” she says. “More than ever, they need to push themselves ahead of other kids who have very good qualifications.”

Though statistically graduates fare better than school leavers, many struggle to find jobs which reflect their degrees. Natalie Pearl, 24, went to Glasgow University to do a masters degree in the hopes that it would help her transfer from marketing to the media. Three months after completing it, she is still struggling to find a job, despite filling in more than 30 applications a week.

“Due to the amount of student debt that I owe, I can only apply for jobs in Glasgow and I only seem to be offered jobs that pay minimum wage so I feel like there is no way I will ever get out of this situation,” she says. “I want to save up enough money to leave Scotland and go somewhere that I can find a job in my chosen field, where there are opportunities for career progression.”

Tanya de Grunwald, who founded the careers advice website GraduateFog.co.uk, says things are so bad that in the last six months, 48 people have found her website by typing in the words “graduate” and “suicide”.

“After the high of graduation, many young people find they come back down to earth with a bump,” she says. “After three years living independently, many go back to feeling like a kid again, living with their parents, sleeping in their childhood bedroom and bickering with their siblings. One graduate living with her parents told me she was feeling really down, but said ‘I’m lucky because I don’t have a curfew’. Lucky not to have a curfew? She was 22!

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“If they aren’t earning, they’ll need to ask their parents for money for the bus into town, or for a pint with their friends. Graduates tell me they hate it – they are ready to be financially independent, but you need a job for that.”

With research suggesting that those who fail to find work after leaving school and university are likely to struggle throughout their lives, there is a growing sense of crisis.

Last week’s figures prompted a predictable round of political blame-laying, with the Westminster government criticised for scrapping existing youth schemes and the Scottish Government criticised for “promoting independence over jobs”.

Others pointed the finger at the education system for failing to equip school leavers with the necessary numeracy and literacy skills required to compete in the jobs market.

But the growing sense of urgency has also generated a raft of radical new proposals. Recently, for example, the CBI called for a Young Britain Tax Credit which would see employers getting paid £1,500 for every person between 16 and 24 they hired.

It also recommended creating 450 business ambassadors to strengthen links between schools and businesses, introducing a comprehensive “readiness for work” assessment for every unemployed person and suspending, rather than cancelling benefits when someone initially takes a job to reduce the perceived risk of taking a short-term post.

So what more can be done to ease the plight of young people such as Mark and Natalie? Are their fortunes likely to change in the next 12 months or – with the economic crisis still raging – is their potential to remain forever untapped?

That spiralling unemployment is having a disproportionate impact on young people is indisputable. “Young people always suffer worse than others in these circumstances because the entry level jobs tend to disappear first and they are competing with people who have more experience in the labour market,” explains Nigel Meager, director of the Institute For Employment Studies.

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According to the Prince’s Trust the struggle to find work strips young people of their self-confidence. Worklessness, it says, is a “mental health hazard,” which can lead to depression and self-loathing.

Meager believes the problem is being fuelled by the coalition’s austerity package and, in particular, the determination to cut public sector jobs at a time when the private sector is not ready to start hiring. “If there isn’t going to be a stimulus to the economy in the short-run – and as far as I can see the UK government remains resolutely committed to the deficit reduction strategy and the continuing public expenditure restrictions, it means no early improvement in the overall unemployment position is likely so the future looks bleak for young people in the short-term,” he says.

“The alternatives are to encourage them to stay on in the education system or to give them something constructive and work-related to do in the meantime which keeps them close to the labour market, improves their skills and gives them something to put on their CV.”

There are some positive noises. Vince Cable recently announced a scheme to offer firms with fewer than 100 employees £1,500 – the equivalent of a year’s national insurance payments – to hire a young apprentice. Unlike in England, the Educational Maintenance Allowance (paid to encourage 16-year-olds to stay in full-time education) has been retained, while Community Jobs Scotland is set to create 2,000 jobs in third sector organisations for 16-24 year-olds who have been unemployed for six months or more.

The Scottish Government points to other initiatives too: its efforts to attract inward investment such as the Amazon depot near Dunfermline, its modern apprenticeship scheme and its ‘Opportunities for All’ programme which, it says, will guarantee a learning or training place for all 16 to 19-year-olds.

“Obviously the situation is serious, every single young person out of work is one too many,” says SNP spokesman Stuart Nicolson. “But in terms of the most recent statistics we still have higher employment rates and lower unemployment rates than the rest of the UK as a whole.”

Scottish Labour’s finance spokesman Richard Baker welcomed the SNP’s initiatives, but criticised the cuts to Further Education colleges and said more could still be done. “On a Scottish level, we are calling for the expansion of Community Jobs Scotland to the private sector and on a UK-wide level, we have a plan for a tax on bankers’ bonuses. The Scottish share of that would go towards creating 2,000 more affordable homes, but also to funding more opportunities for young people.”

Outside the political world, one area of contention is whether – given the fact so any graduates are struggling to find degree-commensurate work – more young people should be encouraged to go to university. De Grunwald says many graduates feel they’ve been misled by teachers and parents who encouraged them to go to continue their studies, saying it would lead to a better job. “Now that they’ve left, employers say ‘You don’t think you’re special, just because you have a degree, do you?’ It’s a real slap in the face,” she says.

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Meager agrees the country already produces enough graduates to meet most of the economy’s needs. “Where the UK tends to be deficient is in more intermediate and lower level skills, the kind of skills young people would get if they stayed on between 16 and 18 and went into either work-based training or more technical training in the further education system.”

De Grunwald also bemoans the emphasis on unpaid work experience, which, if extended over prolonged periods, is arguably a form of exploitation. But Carole Dyvor said she would advise any young person looking for work to embrace it. “Those without any commercial work experience are the ones who find it hardest,” she says.

Despite the gloomy statistics, not everyone is entirely pessimistic. Indeed, Linda Murdoch, deputy director of Glasgow University’s career service, says the sheer weight of negative stories is creating a disproportionate sense of fear in graduates.

“Many students and graduates think that because of the explosion of discussion about youth unemployment that it is very difficult for a graduate to get a job. But mostly these figures apply to young people who have no skills and qualifications.

“Actually for graduates, the picture is much better. Clearly it’s tougher than it was in the early 2000s and they may not get a job in their chosen field first off. But a lot of students are put off even dipping their toe in because they think they’re not going to get anything.”

Meager, on the other hand, believes the situation will get worse before it gets better. “One of the features of this recession is that unemployment didn’t go up as much as one might have expected because employers found ways of keeping people on through short-time working and sometimes wage reductions,” he says.

“That was a good thing, but the other side of that coin is that even when the economy kickstarts, there are lots of firms which already have plenty of capacity to expand without recourse to the labour market. The position looks fairly bleak for the foreseeable future.”

This is bad news for young people like Mark and Natalie, who face continued uncertainty. “It is demoralising. But what can you do? You’ve just got to keep trying,” says Mark. Adds Natalie: “I am trying to think flexibly about what I can do and what skills I can use to help me get positions in different sectors. But I won’t hold my breath.”