Iain Gray: SNP must realise zero-hour jobs don't represent success

Modern apprenticeships are undervalued, argues Labour MSP Iain GrayModern apprenticeships are undervalued, argues Labour MSP Iain Gray
Modern apprenticeships are undervalued, argues Labour MSP Iain Gray
Hitting a target to reduce youth unemployment in Scotland by 40 per cent four year early sounds good but is not the whole story, writes Iain Gray MSP.

People are the first ingredient of a successful economy so investing in education is investing in our future economic success. Which is why ensuring our young people are equipped to deal with whatever lies ahead, ensuring their latent potential is being developed and they are given every chance to succeed, is vital.

Scotland needs well-educated, highly skilled young people if it’s to have an economy which offer high wages, security of work, and well-funded public services. Unfortunately, after ten years of SNP government and cuts of £1.5 billion to public services since 2011, our schools are suffering. There are 3,500 fewer teachers than there were in 2007, there’s a recruitment crisis, classroom sizes are among the biggest in the developed world, and the attainment gap is not closing.

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Furthermore, we know colleges are not receiving the support they need, there are 152,000 fewer places available, student debt is rising – despite the SNP pledging to wipe it out – and young people from privileged backgrounds are still three times more likely to get to university than those from deprived ones.

But what about those young people who don’t go on to further or higher education, but want to make their way in the world of work? Yesterday in the Scottish Parliament, we debated the Development of the Young Workforce report, which showed the Scottish Government has reduced youth unemployment by 40 per cent four years before the target date.

Good news you might think. And yes, it is to be welcomed that young people are finding work. However, what the headline figure fails to impart is that the Government considers a zero-hours contract a “positive destination” for school leavers.

The criteria for “positive destinations” also takes no account of insecure or temporary employment or retention in education courses, because it fails to track the progress, or otherwise, of youngsters over several years.

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Scotland youth unemployment target met four years ahead of schedule

The number of people in insecure work in Scotland has increased by nearly a third since 2011 under the SNP. Over a quarter of a million Scots are trapped in insecure work – 160,000 in low-paid self-employment, 43,000 in insecure temporary work, and 71,000 on zero-hours contracts. Across the UK, 36 per cent of zero-hours contracts are filled by young people, which would mean 25,500 in Scotland.

Those figures are young peoples’ lives. Too many are leaving school to find they face exploitative zero-hours contracts, low wages and major job insecurity. This is despite Nicola Sturgeon saying zero-hours contracts “demean and exploit” workers.

The rise of zero-hours contracts or the “gig economy” – as those who attempt to avoid the severity of the issue like to call it – is a result of Tory austerity, but this doesn’t mean Scotland can’t do anything to change that situation. Nearly four years ago, Sir Ian Wood wrote a report for the government on how to improve the situation for young people leaving school. It was clear about what it required us to do – to provide more paths of greater diversity for young learners to pursue, properly valuing vocational learning as well as academic, and breaking down the barriers between school, college, university and the world of work.

That is potentially a profound change, and the danger was, and is, that it is done half-heartedly. When the report came out, I said that if the result was a few more pupils doing the odd college course while still at school then we would have failed. A concerted effort is needed to make what the report envisaged happen. A seven-year plan and annual reports to track progress are very welcome but that’s not enough when the SNP continues to hide behind “positive destination“ statistics which count almost any job, no matter how insecure, as a success.

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We can’t start to really improve outcomes until we know what a successful transition from education to employment really is. The Scottish Government’s criteria is no longer fit for purpose and needs to change. We need policies which improve outcomes for our young people when they leave school, which is why Labour has an industrial strategy that would equip people with the skills they need to compete for the jobs of tomorrow. It’s also why any Labour Government would ban zero-hours contracts – and introduce a real living wage of £10 an hour.

The Government needs to invest in education, rather than continually cut council budgets, to address skills shortages, particularly in science, technology, engineering, maths and coding – so our young people and Scotland’s economy have the skills needed for the future. As well as changing what it regards as a “positive destination”, the SNP must use the powers it has as a Government to stop awarding public contracts and grants to companies which use exploitative employment measures. The Government needs to set an example when it comes to employment practices and our young people should not bear the brunt of the pernicious “gig economy”.

Further to that, the SNP needs to tackle the issues surrounding modern apprenticeships. Developing the Young Workforce programmes like foundation apprenticeships are not yet embedded. Too many teachers and employers don’t know about them, or take them seriously enough, or see them as an extra, not on a par with say Highers. That’s there in the numbers too; a total of 2,000 foundation apprenticeships is an average of around five per school, 3,000 Level 5 vocational courses is only an average of eight per school. Clearly we have a lot more to do to make these new opportunities available, understood and valued in schools as an option for all pupils. That’s before we get to those young people where progress has not been on track. Those who face particular barriers of disability, ethnicity or care experience or traditional gender bias – still extreme in some frameworks and sectors such as construction or engineering. We need to be stepping up our efforts to improve young people’s learning and skills choices towards a lasting transformation of senior-phase school-age education so they can enter the workforce equipped to face the challenges ahead. And the government has to be more rigorous about how it measures success. Achieving the youth unemployment target is welcome but we have to face up to how many young people are in temporary, insecure, part time or zero-hours jobs.

If SNP ministers are serious about improving life chances for the next generation, they have to get serious about facing up to how well, or how badly, their policies are working.