Everybody knows that young people lack the basic skills needed in the workplace. It’s not just a problem with skills. They have bad attitudes too. These reports appear every few months, gleefully covered by the newspapers and providing soundbites for grandstanding MPs. It’s no wonder, then that youth unemployment is so high. Surely, no employer in their right mind would want to recruit such people.
I have long been sceptical about all this, though, because I first heard it when I was one of the people being complained about. Employers have been banging on about the poor skills and bad attitudes of young people since the 1980s, at least.
Yesterday’s report from the UK Commission for Education and Skills (UKCES) provides some useful background to the debate. It found that, while the UK’s unemployment rate is below average when compared with other EU countries, relative to our adult unemployment rate, it is high.
In other words, countries like Greece and Spain have high youth unemployment rates because they have high unemployment rates generally. The UK doesn’t have that excuse. Furthermore, compared to our wider labour market, our youth unemployment rate has been getting worse for some time.
So, although the UK’s youth unemployment rate is around the EU average, it’s much worse than it ought to be, given our overall employment level.
Doesn’t this just prove that our young people are even more useless than those elsewhere in Europe?
Some of the employers surveyed by UKCES probably think so. This bit of the report made me laugh:
Just under a quarter of those taking on 16 year olds from school say that their recruits lack work experience.”
Well, yes, they are 16. What the hell do you expect?
More importantly, though, most of the 90,000 employers didn’t say any of this. The majority thought that even their 16-year-old recruits were well prepared for the world of work.
This figure rises with education level or, perhaps, simply with age. It could be that 21-year olds are just more adept and confident than 16-year olds, whatever they have done in the intervening years. I was gobby, awkward and, frankly, a bit of an idiot at 16. Slightly less so by 21. I’m not sure how much my Huniversity Heducation had to do with the improvement though.
When it comes to skills, international surveys have shown our young people to be well down the league table.
The rankings are not quite as bad for the general adult population. But here is the interesting bit. There is not much variation in scores by age across the UK population as a whole. On numeracy, for example, in England and Northern Ireland, there is no difference at all.
In literacy, too, there is little variation between the generations. This chart, from the OECD Skills Outlook, compares England and Northern Ireland to South Korea.
The low-level of basic skills, then, is not a problem with our young people. It’s a feature of our general population. Other countries score more highly and push our young people down the league table because they have made greater improvements over the generations, not because our youngsters are stupider than their elders!
As the OECD says (my emphasis):
[P]rogress has been highly uneven across countries. In England/Northern Ireland (UK) and the United States, improvements between younger and older generations are barely apparent. Young people in these countries are entering a much more demanding labour market, yet they are not much better prepared than those who are retiring. England/ Northern Ireland (UK) is among the three highest-performing countries in literacy when comparing 55-65 year-olds; but England/Northern Ireland (UK) is among the bottom three countries when comparing literacy proficiency among 16-24 year-olds. In numeracy, the United States performs around the average when comparing the proficiency of 55-65 year-olds, but is lowest in numeracy among all participating countries when comparing proficiency among 16-24 year-olds. This is not necessarily because performance has declined in England/Northern Ireland (UK) or the United States, but because it has risen so much faster in so many other countries across successive generations.
Academic skills are not everything though. UKCES found that skills like problem solving, communication and conflict management are just as important and that these are better developed in the workplace than in the classroom. The report’s main finding was that Britain’s students need more work experience.
In essence, this report contains one simple message: genuine experience of the workplace is vital for young people. As a result, small jobs make a big difference to young people’s chances of securing work, starting careers and progressing within them.
Those countries offering more work experience to their youngsters tend to find fewer of them without jobs in their early 20s. Britain is around average here but, given our high ratio of youth unemployment and the OECD’s comments about skill levels, we need to give our youngsters all the help they can get.
Combining education and work experience is partly about the design of courses in further and higher education but there is also an onus on employers to work with colleges in providing employment that, as UKCES says, is not just making the tea. All too often, the problem of youngsters with poor skills is thrown back on schools. This report suggests that employers need to do more too.
In short, if we want young people who have working world and life experience we have to give them working world and life experience. Who’d have thought it?