Belfast Telegraph

Young people must grab chance on offer from work experience

By John Simpson

The proportion of young adults who are unemployed is much higher than those in older age groups.

The problem is a serious concern and the Minister for Employment and Learning, Stephen Farry, has launched a scheme to give employers a special annual subsidy of £5,000 to give work experience to some of these young people in 'priority sectors'.

This situation poses awkward challenges. Why are young adults, who have recently enjoyed the advantages of modern education, disadvantaged (rather than advantaged) in the jobs market? In parallel, why do employers seem reluctant to employ them?

Stephen Farry has one of the most critical responsibilities of any minister in the Executive. His advisers have repeatedly demonstrated that the skills and work readiness of the next generation must be significantly upgraded.

If the education curriculum was functioning adequately, people who have recently enjoyed those privileges would be at an advantage, not the reverse.

In the last decade, education and skills training have been improving. However, the rate of improvement and the shift in focus towards more people with vocational qualifications that will be needed has been less than would be desirable.

Mr Farry and his advisers would probably privately subscribe to this critical comment. They have a difficult line to tread. To attract international and local investors, the repeated rubric is that Northern Ireland has a well-educated, modern workforce. However, to motivate educationalists, agencies providing vocational training, universities and further education institutes, there is a need for critical appraisal, re-evaluation and some adjustments. Some coherence is needed to influence improving standards.

To make the changes, Mr Farry needs the active support of the key providing organisations such as the universities and further education colleges. Framework agreements on shared curriculum plans and annual assessments of outcomes would re-enforce these ambitions.

Unhappily, unemployment is still rising in Northern Ireland and is now ahead of the UK average. Higher unemployment is falling more sharply on younger adults than older workers.

The particular problems of young people were acknowledged by Mr Farry when, two weeks ago, he launched the Work Experience scheme to partially ease the situation for some young people through an addition to the Youth Employment Scheme.

The Work Experience scheme has been created partly as a response to the large increase in unemployment of young adults.

Even though the labour market is in a continuous process of change, with a much smaller number of job changers and therefore fewer job vacancies in the recession, employers seem less likely to hire people seeking a first job. However, there are still, each month, several thousand jobs being filled.

Is this, indirectly, a criticism of employers or potential employees?

Young adults often complain that 'there are no jobs' and where there are jobs the earnings are often no better than the minimum wage. They have unrealistic expectations about the income to be earned from their first employment. The critical response is that unrealistic expectations must be challenged.

For employers, the apprehension about young workers is a mirror image of the expectations of young people. Potential new employees must present themselves with personal discipline, a positive approach to interview and recognition of the need to start at the bottom, exploiting any training on offer.

Too many employers complain that the motivation and personal skills of young people are inadequate.

Minister Farry has pitched his scheme where it can be effective. Over the next three years, at a cost of over £30m, about 1,000 young people each year will be placed with employers to gain work experience and some associated. Employers in selected priority sectors will be paid £5,750 a year for each placement.

This is a useful supplementary initiative. The minister, if the scheme is successful, may be encouraged to extend it to larger numbers of young people. However, it is only a palliative response to more critical questions.