FOR the last couple of weeks one question keeps coming up: “Is what’s happening today the same as in the 1980s?”
Certainly, the levels of unemployment, the lack of prospects for growth, the growing anxiety, frustration and anger are reminiscent of that particularly difficult period of history.
Other similarities include the presence of a dogmatic Conservative-led government, finger pointing towards Europe and trade unions and the introduction of a scheme designed, on the face of it, to support young workers who have especially suffered the brunt of the decline in employment.
Last week’s unemployment figures further confirmed that women and young people have been particularly badly affected by the increases in unemployment. Women have suffered due to the relatively high propensity of women working in the public sector, especially in the North East - 40% of all employment for women is in this sector in the North East. Meanwhile, young people have suffered more from decline across the board in economic activity, competing with experienced workers for scarce jobs in an increasingly tough environment – in Hartlepool 25 people compete for every vacancy.
Within hours of being announced a few weeks ago by the Deputy Prime Minister, the Youth Contract scheme was drawing comparisons with the 1983 Youth Training Scheme (YTS). The first comparison was that the same amount of cash was put behind the programme, £1bn, although that obviously went a good deal further in 1983. The second was the lack of an enthusiastic reaction from just about anybody outside government circles.
The YTS was heavily criticised as essentially being a means to subsidise cheap, poor quality labour, and did nothing for the long-term employability or career prospects of the young people who participated in it. The scheme defeated aspiration and ambition, as if confirming a feeling among young people that they were at the bottom of the heap. The same dangers apply to the Youth Contract.
Clegg’s announcement was as close to an admission by the Government as we’ve seen that the scrapping of the Future Jobs Fund (FJF) just 11 days into government was a huge mistake. The FJF has been proven to work, supporting disadvantaged young people not just into real, meaningful employment, but also demanding that those employing them develop their skills and employability to help ensure they are more able to stay in work. Large numbers of people who benefited from the FJF have done just that, stayed in work, and a number of local authorities are seeking to squeeze out cash to maintain similar schemes to tackle high levels of long-term youth unemployment.
The Youth Contract doesn’t place the same demands on employers, it is a short-term wage subsidy that might get young people off Job Seekers Allowance or other benefits for eight weeks, but it will do nothing to solve longer term employment issues and will do very little to encourage or enable young people to prosper.
Kevin Rowan, regional secretary, Northern TUC