Let’s rethink the degree obsession and get the young into a trade

Associate business editor Trevor Sturgess
Associate business editor Trevor Sturgess

It’s so tough for young people wanting to enter the labour market.

Jobs are really hard to find for youngsters at both ends of the qualification spectrum.

And it’s one of the biggest problems confronting the nation, risking the alienation and disaffection of so many. Unless we can get more young people into work, we are failing a generation.

Across the county, thousands of kids not in education, employment or training – so called NEETS – are struggling to find work. There are numerous schemes to help them but that help is often only temporary.

Thousands of graduates are unemployed long after leaving university with a good degree.

And many of the jobs on offer will not lead to long-lasting, fulfilling careers with a salary sufficient to cover mortgage repayments and saving for a pension.

Every time I go into a supermarket, restaurant or hotel, I am reminded of the difficulty facing the young.

Most of the jobs are low paid – many on the minimum wage. I know that many of the young workers are students, but many more are not.

While there are good careers in hotel, supermarket and restaurant management, there will never be enough vacancies for everyone. These are mainly labour-intensive roles where career progression is well nigh impossible.

Youth unemployment is not a British problem. It’s far worse in other European countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece.

While desirable from a taxpayer’s and budget-balancing point of view, the race to cut public spending is slashing another swathe of potential job vacancies for young people.

And with supermarkets extending self-checkout technology and hotels paring their workforce to the bone in the face of tough competition, job opportunities are further reduced.

Kent Business’s Kick Start Kent campaign is a call for 50 firms in the county to take on an apprentice in the next year
Kent Business’s Kick Start Kent campaign is a call for 50 firms in the county to take on an apprentice in the next year

Official statistics show the private sector is creating more jobs than are being lost in the public sector.

That’s good – but are firms doing enough to help young people? Are they taking on apprentices or young graduates?

There has been a lot of investment in apprenticeships, and Kent and Medway have a good record.

But it still only scratches the surface of youth unemployment. At a recent forum chaired by Gordon Henderson, MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, he called on small firms to each take on one apprentice, give themselves new skills and ideas, and help cut unemployment.

I could not agree more and Kent Business’s Kick Start Kent campaign will go some way to addressing that issue, calling for 50 firms in the county to sign up and take on an apprentice in the next year.

Of course, the elephant in the room is overseas employees. Many Kent firms prefer to take on a skilled Eastern European with a good attitude.

Labour’s idea to oblige those firms to take on local apprentices is a worthy one but may run foul of EU rules. You cannot now promise, as Gordon Brown did, “British jobs for British workers”.

And of course, most employers complain about the lack of social skills among young people.

Many cite a lack of “work-ready” graduates.

That’s a sign of the times. It’s a problem largely down to society and parental upbringing. Training providers, schools and universities must plug the gap.

From my conversations with employers, many are keen to hold on to a young person with social skills, when they find one.

Going 'into trade' was once frowned upon by the well-to-do. But those who do – with or without a degree – are laughing all the way to the bank

Professional jobs are changing and experts predict that technology will downgrade their role over time, further jeopardising worthwhile career opportunities.

These times are far tougher than when baby boomers were entering the labour market. They had the pick of jobs. There were apprenticeships galore in a still-thriving manufacturing sector. Banks needed an abundant
supply of new recruits.

The workplace is now a very different place. Sure, there are new opportunities in IT and with the likes of Facebook, Google or Twitter. But the factory floor for the unskilled is no more. And reductions in middle management have reduced graduate roles.

The exception to this are tradespeople. There has been no sign of reduced demand for plumbers, electricians and others in that ilk.

Going “into trade” was once frowned upon by the well-to-do. But those who do – with or without a degree – are laughing all the way to the bank. With shortages in these trades, many young people might usefully disregard their school’s siren cry to go to university.

It’s time for schools to re-think their obsession with encouraging pupils to study for a degree. I know it’s in the school’s interest but it might not be in the best interest of the student or the county’s economy.

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