UK Politics

Four Thought: Are we too focused on kids?

Boy studying

Politicians are desperate to deal with the UK's skills shortage. But are they concentrating on the young at the expense of the existing working-age population, asks social entrepreneur Colin Crooks.

Our efforts to deal with unemployment over many decades have failed. Our obsession with youth unemployment has been a serious distraction from two much larger issues - the loss of semi-skilled work and the appalling failure of our education system - that have steadily destroyed the life chances of millions of Britain's families.

Skills and attitudes are passed down to children by their parents, but because so many of Britain's parents are unemployed and poorly educated too many of our young people simply haven't had positive role models. So successive governments have focused on giving interview skills to disillusioned young people for jobs that don't exist.

They haven't tried to create jobs and they've consistently neglected the adults who got such a raw deal from schooling. Their potential to be good role models has been buried. In a nutshell, we simply haven't addressed the issues at the root of the jobs crisis.

But this is a moral question just as much as it is an economic one. Why should those people who got such a raw deal from the education system in the seventies, the eighties and the nineties be ignored? Is it fair to those generations who watched the jobs they expected to get simply disappear, to be excluded again? I believe we have a duty to them as a "let-down" generation.

If you are in any doubt about how badly let down they are, let me give you two reasons, two shocking numbers, and two stories the news headlines only half tell.

First is the huge but almost invisible level of persistent unemployment: the headlines tell us there are 2.5 million people out of work. In fact 6.5 million people of working age want to work or want more work.

Second is the low level of skills, and the number is even more shocking: 10 million adults in the UK (in other words one in every four) do not have a single level 2 qualification, or GCSE.

I learned the hard way about what this means. I gave a man called Victor a job trial as a van driver. I read the map while he drove, but towards the end I asked to switch jobs. He refused.

I told him he needed to find his own way around. He stubbornly declined to take the map and I again insisted it was part of the job. Then suddenly he hit me. In the cramped space of a van cab, we started grappling with each other - him enraged and me stunned and bewildered.

'No one told me'

Eventually, Victor calmed down and as we sat there panting and staring out of the window, I asked him: "Can you read?" "Naw," he mumbled.

As you can imagine Victor didn't get the job. But my experience with him partly explains why we don't realise how common illiteracy is. And as bad as the problems it obviously causes him, it is highly likely that his children are illiterate, too.

The role model effect of a parent is incredibly powerful. Parents have such a huge effect that any investment in their skills and confidence will have a big impact on their children's prospects.

If your parents don't work regularly or haven't worked, what could you possibly know about work?

One young man walked out on his first day because he had been asked to make the tea. It turned out that his father had rarely been in work and that this lad had no idea of what work was really like.

When I explained that the first day in any job is about making the tea or doing some other menial task, and you work your way up, he said: "No one told me that."

And that is my point. We focus almost exclusively on youth unemployment and we bemoan our young people's lack of skills but we do not focus on the causes of that tragedy. We never seem to ask why so many young people can truly say that no one told them.

Cash piles

With so many poorly educated, unemployed role-models, it can be no surprise that many young people are apathetic about learning themselves. They do not know what work is like, they have no idea what they could be good at, and they do not appreciate the value of training.

The important thing about employment is that it galvanises the interest in learning - it gives a point to it.

For me, the conclusion is obvious: we must stop prioritising by age. Let us focus instead on releasing the entrepreneurial skills of the let-down generation. Local social entrepreneurs know what is needed in their area and they can create the jobs we need. In this way we will rebuild the confidence of a generation. And that confidence will pass down to their children.

The work is there, and we should put more trust in people to run small businesses and to deliver local services. They will likely do a much better job than the normal contractors and they will create more jobs in the process.

And we have the money: the government could put in £5bn if we scrapped the well-intentioned but highly flawed Work Programme. Our biggest companies, meanwhile, are sitting on hundreds of billions of pounds in cash while the young people they will soon need fester on the dole.

One million unemployed young people is a very serious problem but we should not let the media clamour for quick fixes distract us. We need to deal with the problem, not its symptom.

The real problem is a lack of jobs for people with low skills. If we tackle that, we can lift millions of people from the misery and hopelessness of endemic unemployment. If we do these things rather than focus on age alone, we will see many more people transforming their lives and transforming the future for their kids.