All They Want Is a Job

Howard Williamson examines the government’s engagement with young people who are not in work, education or training.

It was some 16 or 17 years ago that the first serious research took place about young people just beyond the age of 16 who had not remained in education, been unable to get a job and been apparently unwilling to take a proclaimed ‘guaranteed’ training place. These are the so-called ‘NEETS’ – young people not in employment, education or training.

That early research, focused on South Glamorgan, concluded that around 20 per cent of 16- and 17- year olds were, at any one time, in this predicament. We conceded that there were many young people who dipped in and out of this ‘status’, though there were also others who experienced it throughout the whole of the two years after leaving school.

It was a contentious figure, repeatedly challenged by politicians at the time, for the official statistics (based on claimant counts – and most young people in this age group had not been entitled to income support since 1988) suggested that the numbers were miniscule. It took another four years for the incoming Labour government, through its Education Select Committee, to acknowledge that the phenomenon was “not a residual policy problem but a significant policy challenge”.

Beyond the disputed statistics lay the more human experience. The South Glamorgan study interviewed a small number of young people about their pathways into inactivity and where they expected to go from there. The stories were predictable: school exclusions, family breakdown, substance misuse, and criminality. Yet, surprisingly, they were generally optimistic about their futures, believing that eventually they would settle back into education or training, or get a job.

The reverse picture was, however, the case in a further study that took place in Mid Glamorgan two years later. There, the young people interviewed continued to be supported by their families and were well integrated into their communities. However, they were deeply pessimistic about the future. As he put it,  there was not much point in queuing for jobs when there were no jobs.

The term I coined for this group back then was ‘status zer0’ (or status 0). It attracted a great deal of criticism and sometimes hostility. I had intended it as a metaphor for young people who seemed to count for nothing and who were going nowhere. It was meant to be evocative.  Certainly, my thinking was picked up by the media and it was in fact a newspaper article that really brought the issue to public and political attention. The article in question was called Too Young and Too Precious to Waste. It would be equally apposite now.

Even before the election of the Labour Government in 1997, there were modest attempts to address the issue. In England, a programme called NewStart (later rebranded as Relaunch) was established. In Wales, the Youth Access Initiative was introduced. Both were designed to help support young people to stay ‘included’, to reintegrate those who had already dropped out (or been kicked out), and to prevent young people from dropping out in the first place.  Most local authorities in Wales appointed dedicated outreach workers and sometimes school-based workers to tackle the issue.

The terminology steadily changed. ‘NEET’ was introduced in 1996 by a civil servant who was adamant that ‘status zer0’ was an obstacle to political debate and policy progress.  Subsequently, he was the lead author on Bridging the Gap: new opportunities for young people not in education, employment or training, the Social Exclusion Unit’s flagship report on the NEETs that was launched by the Prime Minister in June 1999.

Bridging the Gap was but one of a raft of policy ideas and initiatives designed to strengthen support for more disadvantaged and allegedly ‘disaffected’ young people. Some initiatives were very explicitly directed at the ‘NEETs’, the Connexions Service in England being a case in point. Others, such as Extending Entitlement in Wales were more implicitly concerned with ensuring reach and improving opportunities for young people at greater risk of, or already experiencing ‘social exclusion’.

Yet we arrive in 2009, during the latest recession, with quoted figures of approaching one million NEETs across England and Wales, though this statistic refers to a broader age group: 16-24 year olds.  Bridging the Gap had proclaimed, with surprising assuredness, the number to be 161,000 16 and 17-year olds.  Our own extrapolations in 1994, from a local study, would have placed the national figure at something similar, and most studies conducted later put the scale at between 100,000 and 200,000. The ‘official’ estimate for Wales is some 12,000 young people, between 10 and 12 per cent of the age group.

Yet the scale of the challenge is but one part of the context. Where policy has failed rather miserably is in differentiating between the ‘disengaged’. They are by no means all the same and of course there are different criteria on which they can be disaggregated, such as attitudes, previous experiences, current circumstances or something else.

My own ‘classification’, some years ago, related to the ‘seriously confused’, the ‘temporarily sidetracked’ and the ‘deeply alienated’. The first two groups were not fundamentally opposed to ‘re-engagement’ – the former needed attention and encouragement, the latter understanding and patience. In contrast, he last group had switched off from mainstream participation, and had either sunk into ‘purposeless’ behaviour (drinking, drug misuse) or become active in more ‘purposeful’ behaviour (instrumental criminality).

As one lad said, ‘I’ve got alternative ways of living’.  The point here is that policy approaches have also to be differentiated in recognition of these differences.  Too often, they are not.

Moreover, we have still failed to grasp in sufficient detail both the causes and consequences of being ‘NEET’. There are numerous precipitating and underlying factors that merit consideration and attention, and their relative weight and impact will vary amongst different clusters of individuals.

Equally, though the statistical evidence of the long-term consequences of being NEET at 16 or 17 is itself pretty dire, the future is not cast in stone and new prospects can shift the pathways of these young people’s lives in more positive directions. However, the bleak prognosis for many (and the public costs attached to dealing with it) remains the strongest economic case for more robust investment now.

Policy has to consider both preventative measures and ‘bridge-building’ opportunities. The latter have to be sure that they command some level of relevance and credibility for the individuals in question. Too often, they do not. What many, if not most, of these young people want is work and income, in other words a job. They are unwilling to be fobbed off with what they often see as meaningless and unattractive training ‘opportunities’, even if – to the labour market analyst – these make most sense to a particular context.

And this is the overarching issue. How do we reconcile what may appear to be a rather wishy-washy ‘youth work’ approach to those who are NEET? How do we  connect the often devastating consequences of teenage idleness with the tough-nosed labour market and economic imperatives that usually govern the recruitment strategies for the jobs that these young people really want?  These are the vital questions that policy makers need to address.

Howard Williamson is Professor of European Youth Policy at the University of Glamorgan. The IWA’s conference ‘Delivering a NEET Solution for Wales’ is being held at Coleg Gwent, Pontypool Campus on Friday 23 October. Click on Events on this website for details or ring 02920 660820.

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