The young at the back of the jobs queue need a story to get political attention

Fifteen years ago I was helping to implement the recommendations of the Determined to Succeed report, trying to improve the employment chances of school leavers who did not go on to further or higher education.
A few year later that initiative metamorphosed into More Choice, More Chances, which was aiming to do the same thing. In 2014 the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce produced its similar suggestions, noting that “almost one in five young people in Scotland wake up in the morning wondering if their country needs them.”
Now Naomi Eisenstadt, the Scottish Government’s Independent Adviser on Poverty and Inequality, has produced another set of proposals, many very like those made before: young people need more relevant and timely careers advice, we need better data in order to design more effective policies, we need to match the skills young people are taught with those employers will need, give more time to non-academic routes to work and so on.
Because most of Ms Eisenstadt’s insights and her prescriptions are not new does not make them invalid, in fact it could be taken as an endorsement. There is no magic solution to reducing the number of people who leave school without a job, or a place in training or education – it may be a case of making a lot of small changes and applying them consistently over time.
Yet the question she does not ask, which should trouble all of us, is why this problem persists in spite of all the intellectual effort which has gone into identifying the causes and suggesting remedies? The proportion of 16-19-year-olds who were (in the jargon term) NEET – not in employment, education or training – is over ten per cent and is not appreciably lower than it was when I was working on Determined to Succeed.
There has been some improvement in the position of girls, where the NEET proportion has declined from 12% a dozen years ago to 8.7% in the latest figures. But boys do worse (12.7%) and there has been less improvement over the last 12 years. This in an economy where overall employment rates have been growing.
Ms Eisenstadt gives as her justification for concentrating on this group that it has been relatively neglected in policy terms. There has been a lot of attention given to early years interventions (it has been “oversold,” she says). It may be that we have more to do in implementing measures for the very young, but at least we know what works.
Equally at the top end of the age and ability range we have poured resources into higher education. Free tuition fees have increased what she calls the “social gradient.” To those that hath, has been given. The better off, who make up the overwhelming proportion of university students, have been given a free pass to higher value jobs and opportunities.
But for those that hath not has been taken away even that which they had – by a reduction in further education college funding and places, particularly in part-time courses which might benefit those less academically inclined.
When Alex Salmond, then First Minister, introduced free tuition he had his pledge – “that rocks would melt in the sun” before he reintroduced charges – written on a block of stone and posed for pictures next to it. Could it be that NEETs are just not glamourous enough for such political grandstanding? Every so often a new initiative is introduced, but little money is devoted to it and it quickly vanishes from the headlines. A few civil servants are left to try to implement changes with inadequate resources and waning political enthusiasm.
Employers, like Jim McColl with his Newlands Junior College in Glasgow try to do something practical and meaningful, but he faces an uphill struggle to persuade the Scottish Government to copy the idea in other Scottish cities. Occasionally, when employers draw attention to the problem, as Arnold Clark did when it said that 81% of applicants for its apprenticeship scheme were unemployable, they are either ignored or criticised.
There is a big human issue here. Between a fifth and a quarter of 16-29-year-olds live in relative poverty and they account for a disproportionately high share of those with mental health problems.
There is also an economic dimension. With productivity lagging the UK average, growth faltering and public spending increasingly dependent on the performance of the Scottish economy we can ill afford to have a proportion of the potential workforce doing nothing.
But as Ms Eisenstadt says, this age group “needs a comparatively powerful narrative as the under fives.” Her report has been launched just as MSPs have disappeared for the summer. It will be instructive to see whether it stimulates political debate and action when they return.