The coalition government has experienced a number of challenges relating to youth. Most obviously high youth unemployment or levels of NEET have continued to be an issue. The riots in 2011 also provided a focal point for concerns about the level of social engagement of young people. Furthermore the coalition government have overseen a period in which there is considerable change within the the environment that young people pursue their lives, learning and work. Notable policy changes in this sense have included the Education Act 2011, the demise of Connexions (Hooley & Watts, 2011) and the Raising of the Participation Age.
Like previous governments the coalition is committed to addressing the issue of youth unemployment and disengagement. The Deputy Prime Minister has described this as “a ticking time bomb for the economy and our society as a whole” (Clegg, 2012) and has been instrumental in designing the Government’s response. The Youth Contract has been a central plank of this response and this post will seek to clarify what it is and how it is operating.
The Youth Contract was launched in April 2012 and is aimed at the 18-24 age group. It combines apprenticeships, voluntary work placements and co-ordination with the Work Programmes and JobCentre Plus. Further details are provided about the initiative on the DWP website at http://www.dwp.gov.uk/youth-contract/. Although the Youth Contract is rooted in the DWP it is an initiative of the office of the Deputy Prime Minister and actually operates cross-departmentally including involvement from DFE and DBIS.
Many of the under-pinning ideas on which this cross-departmental collaboration is based were set out in Building Engagement, Building Futures (HM Government, 2011). This document sets out five key strategic priorities for the government:
Raising educational attainment in school and beyond to ensure that young people have the skills they need to compete in a global economy;
Helping local partners to provide effective and coordinated services that support all young people, including the most vulnerable, putting us on track to achieve full participation for 16-17 year olds by 2015;
Encouraging and incentivising employers to inspire and recruit young people by offering more high quality Apprenticeships and work experience places;
Ensuring that work pays and giving young people the personalised support they need to find it, through Universal Credit, the Work Programme and our Get Britain Working measures; and
Putting in place a new Youth Contract worth almost £1 billion over the next three years to help get young people learning or earning before long term damage is done.
Although the Youth Contract is cited as a priority in its own right it in fact serves as a mechanism for coordinating government activities for young people in this area (especially in relation to (2) and (3) but also to some extent in relation to (1) and (4).)
The Youth Contract is therefore something of a ragged collection of policy initiatives which include differing levels of government funding and engagement. The key elements of the Youth Contract are:
• Wage subsidies for employers to incentivise taking on young people.
• Work experience placements (typically unpaid and lasting between 2-8 weeks)
• Sector based work academies (essentially a combination of work experience, training and a potential job).
• Employer subsidies to take on apprenticeships
• Support for the Apprenticeship model
• New funding for NEET support programmes
When set out in this way there is actually very little that looks new about the Youth Contract. The use of employer subsidies (Hamersma, 2008), work experience (Hollywood et al., 2012) and various kinds of intermediate labour markets (Ali, 2011) are well established approaches for tackling youth unemployment and in fact were key features of Labour Party policy in this area whilst the party was in government (Tonge, 1999). Nor is it possible to see Apprenticeships or NEET support programmes as offering a new intervention. Given that the Youth Contract is essentially just about rearranging the pieces of existing youth active labour market policy the important questions are as follows:
How does the scale of the Youth Contract compare with previous youth initiatives in this area?
Is there anything new in the organisation and integration of the pieces of the youth contract that makes it more likely to be effective?
How can the development of the Youth Contract we squared conceptually with the closure of Connexions when many of the new initiatives’ concerns seems so closely aligned with the aims of Connexions?
The media has received the Youth Contract with some scepticism. Most coverage has focused on the employer incentive elements of the Youth Contract although there is some coverage (often for comic effect) of some of the NEET engagement programmes e.g. the BBC’s exposé on the fact that “government is paying a company to wake teenagers up in an effort to get them back to work” (BBC, 2012). ITV’s recent coverage of the scheme has presented it as a failure, citing a survey from EEF which was unable to find a single employer that had engaged with the Youth Contract (Kussenburg, 2012). The concern about effectively engaging employers in this kind of scheme is also raised elsewhere including in thoughtful article in the Financial Times which cites Paul Gregg from the University of Bath arguing that the infrastructure that is in place to support youth transitions is insufficient (Groom and O’Connor, 2012).
The newness of the Youth Contract means that there is currently very little formal evaluation or academic commentary on the initiative. This fact is highlighted by Nicola Smith on the TUC’s Touchstone blog (Smith, 2012). Smith flags a document produced by DWP which sets out the data collected so far in relation to the interface between the Youth Contract and the Work Programme (DWP, 2012). This argues (with some careful caveats) that 17,000 young people on the Work Programme have entered work. Smith points out that these figures do not demonstrate that the programme is producing sustainable outcomes for young people. She also highlights the lack of data that is available around the level of employer engagement in the programme. A FOI request (http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/122836/response/304925/attach/2/WDTK%202842.pdf) has also highlight this lack of data. Also writing for the TUC, Paul Bivand (2012) goes further in his Generation Lost report, concluding that even if the Youth Contract initiatives prove effective, their scale is inadequate to deal with the current level of youth unemployment.
From my perspective what I find most difficult to understand is how the government have been able to get away with launching the Youth Contract at the same time as effectively closing down the Connexions service. Connexions (or a combined youth and adult careers service) would have been an ideal agency to administer and drive Youth Contract type initiatives locally. For these to be effective the delivery agency needs to be strongly embedded in schools, in FE and work-based learning and also to have strong links with employers. It also needs to have a strong understanding of young people and how they engage with work and with government initiatives with varying degrees of compulsion. Without this kind of agency it seems that the Youth Contact is firstly in danger of re-inventing initiatives that were previously in place, and secondly in delivering them in a way that fails to engage one of the critical stakeholders. As eve
r this is not a plea that Connexions was perfect nor that it shouldn’t have been changed, but rather an observation that coalition government policy has been highly contradictory in this area.
There is lots more to say about the Youth Contract and it will be particularly interesting to see what future programme data begins to show. However, in the meantime I think that there are reasons to be sceptical about the Youth Contract in terms of its scale, its ability to engage employers and how far it has been designed in a way that builds on existing local support infrastructures.
Ali, T. (2011). The UK future jobs fund: Labour’s adoption of the job guarantee principle.
BBC (2012). Nick Clegg scheme will pay firm to wake jobless teens. 20 July 2012. Available from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-18916683 [Accessed 12th September 2012].
Bivand, P. (2012). Generation Lost: Youth unemployment and the youth labour market. London: TUC.
Clegg, N. (2012) Speech to the Groundwork Hub in south east London. Cited in Radical new approach to defuse “ticking time bomb” of NEETs. 21st February 2012. Available from http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/radical-new-approach-defuse-ticking-time-bomb-neets [Accessed 12th September 2012].
DWP (2012) Ad hoc statistics on the volumes of young people entering employment from the Work Programme since the start of the Youth Contract. July 2012. Available from http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd1/adhoc_analysis/2012/wp_yp_job_entries.pdf [Accessed 12th September 2012].
Groom, B and O’Connor, S. (2012) UK grapples with youth unemployment. August 13, 2012. Available from http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/49c9e7e8-ccf8-11e1-b78b-00144feabdc0.html#axzz26FWuwrkW [Accessed 12th September 2012].
Hamersma, S. (2008). The effects of an employer subsidy on employment outcomes: A study of the work opportunity and welfare-to-work tax credits. J. Pol. Anal. Manage., 27 (3), 498-520.
HM Government (2011). Building Engagement, Building Futures: Our Strategy to Maximise the Participation of 16-24 Year Olds in Education, Training and Work. London: HM Government. http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/building%20engagement%20building%20futures.pdf
Hollywood, E., Egdell, V., & McQuaid, R. (2012). Addressing the issue of disadvantaged youth seeking work. Social Work and Society International Online Journal, 10 (1).
Hooley, T., & Watts, A.G. (2011). Careers Work with Young People: Collapse or Transition?. Derby: International Centre for Guidance Studies, University of Derby. http://derby.openrepository.com/derby/handle/10545/196706.
Kuenssberg, L (2012) Government’s Youth Contract failing to fire. 5th September 2012. Available from http://www.itv.com/news/2012-09-04/the-governments-youth-contract-comes-under-scrutiny/ [Accessed 12th September 2012].
Smith, N. (2012). What has happened to the Government’s Youth Contract. 7th September 2012. Available from http://touchstoneblog.org.uk/2012/09/what-has-happened-to-the-governments-youth-contract/ [Accessed 12th September 2012].
Tonge, J. (1999). New packaging, old deal? New Labour and employment policy innovation. Critical Social Policy, 19 (2), 217-232.