Mass youth unemployment has featured large in my personal and professional life.
As a teenager, I was one of over a million unemployed young people in the 1980s. As a civil servant, I advised government ministers and worked with partners to design initiatives to tackle youth unemployment from 2008 to 2013. As the principal of West Lothian College, I am now focused on playing our part in implementing the Scottish Government’s young person’s guarantee to ensure no one is left behind.
Mass youth unemployment in the 1980’s
I was unemployed in the 1980s during a period of mass unemployment.
I tried hard to get a job, any job. With a good bunch of Highers I thought I would get something. But it was 1981, a time of high levels of youth unemployment set to become even worse. So, apart from the occasional short-term shop job, I signed on the dole for a big chunk of the early 1980’s.
At that time, government training schemes for the young unemployed like the Youth Opportunity Programme (YOP) and the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) were restricted to 16-18 year olds. I remember wondering about how little I was chased by the then DHSS (Department for Health and Social Security) to prove that I was actively seeking work. At the age of 19, it seemed that I was too old for the government to be concerned about! There were few jobs and efforts were focused on those young people eligible for YOP and YTS.
So, when the band UB40 (named after the Unemployment Benefit Attendance Card) released their debut album Signing Off in 1980, its iconic cover really resonated with me. And their 1981 single One in Ten summed up how I and millions of others felt during those dark years.
I am the one in ten, A number on a list
I am the one in ten, Even though I don’t exist
Nobody knows me, Even though I’m always there
A statistic, a reminder, Of a world that doesn’t care
In the mid-1980s, I decided to return to full time education and went to Glasgow College of Technology to study a degree in computing. I graduated, aged 29, just at the time of another economic recession! Too old to be considered by graduate recruitment schemes, I threw myself into applying for established IT jobs. Fortunately, I was successful.
Mass youth unemployment in the great recession
I worked in the Scottish Government when the financial crash happened and was asked to lead the skills response to economic recovery. My job was to collaborate with national agencies like Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and advise the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning on new initiatives.
The Scottish Government launched ScotAction in June 2009 — a skills support package for leading Scotland out of recession and on to economic growth. Additional funding was provided to colleges to support training for work, investment in apprenticeships supported training in work, and additional funding boosted partnership action for continuing employment, the national partnership approach to supporting redundancy, and supported people moving from one job to another as a result of redundancy.
Government funding for most of these initiatives was supplemented by the European Social Fund. Initiatives included Adopt an Apprentice which is still available today and provides £5,000 to a company that recruits a redundant apprentice.
When I joined the Scotland Office of the UK Government in 2009 my first task was to work in partnership with Scottish Government officials to arrange a collaborative national jobs summit addressed by the Secretary of State for Scotland, the First Minister, the CBI chief executive and the STUC General Secretary.
Under the banner of Get Britain Working, the UK Government introduced the Future Jobs Fund in October 2009 — an employer recruitment incentive to persuade businesses to recruit unemployed young people. Lessons were learned from YOP and YTS – this scheme was open to 16-24 year olds. Sector based work academies, introduced in 2011, offered pre-employment training, work experience, and a guaranteed job interview.
Despite efforts from both governments, youth unemployment continued to rise to an all-time high of 21.9% in November 2011 when over a million young people in the UK were out of work.
Following my return to the Scottish Government in early 2012 I was asked to head up an economic recovery unit and lead on drafting Scotland’s first youth employment strategy, Action for Jobs: Supporting Young Scots into Work. Under the banner of Make Young People Your Business we created the Youth Employment Scotland Fund with Scotland’s local authorities to provide an employer recruitment incentive for companies recruiting a young person on at least minimum wage for six months.
Other initiatives introduced around that time included Community Jobs Scotland, an employability scheme funded by government and delivered by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations to support unemployed young people back into work by providing paid job training opportunities with third sector employers.
Scottish Ministers adopted a medium to long term approach to youth employment when they established the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce in January 2013. The Commission published its final report in June 2014 and all recommendations were accepted by the Scottish Government in December 2014 in its new youth employment strategy, Developing the Young Workforce. This resulted in a seven-year national programme to develop Scotland’s young workforce.
Colleges offer a critical lifeline
In all economic recessions colleges provide a vital lifeline to many thousands of young people (and adults impacted by job losses).
On a personal level, returning to college in the mid-80’s after years of unemployment and low paid jobs enabled me to start my career path. At a professional level, I worked with colleges throughout my time as a civil servant to create positive opportunities for people affected by economic crises. When I left the Scottish Government in September 2013 to work at Ayrshire College I was proud to contribute to achieving the goals set out in the government’s Developing the Young Workforce strategy.
In my current role as principal of West Lothian College I am proud of how we support young people and adults to achieve relevant qualifications and skills that prepare them for work, develop in work, and make transitions from one job to another.
In the Observer on 16 October, former prime minister Gordon Brown warned of “a Covid generation as desolate and as neglected as the YTS generation of the 1980s”. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen!
I don’t think it’s helpful for politicians and media commentators to refer to ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ generations. Today’s young people, more than ever before, need hope to get them through these unprecedented times.
The Young Person’s Guarantee is a positive pledge and I know that colleges across Scotland will help make it a reality.