The scale of youth unemployment is extremely serious.
As a former apprentice, school governor and chairman of Warwick Manufacturing Group, it is an issue that has been close to my heart throughout my working life. To take just one example, last year saw a 15 per cent increase in long-term youth unemployment. It would be easy – and largely justified – to blame the government for this. Yet youth unemployment is not only a matter of fiscal policy and work programme funding.
Young people in Britain are particularly exposed because of the structure of the British economy. We know this because youth unemployment was rising well before the financial tsunami.
Britain’s youth unemployment rate increased by a quarter in the three years to 2007, while the economy grew.
So for long-term solutions, we should perhaps look to countries which have low youth unemployment in good times and bad. Where do they focus? On preparing young people for work. This is where we fail. We abolished our vocational technical colleges with the best of intentions. But as technical colleges became universities, many lost their focus on employability for all.
Vocational sub-degree courses went, work placements vanished. This was the wrong path to take.
Look instead at fast-growing Brazil, where the number of students at technical colleges has quadrupled in ten years, with one in four students doing a degree.
Today, the Brazilian government is building a 150 more technical colleges.
In Germany, the dual-system of vocational education means companies pay to train the young, so they can hire the best workers after they get their berufsabschluss.
For Britain, the best example is perhaps Japan, where youth unemployment has stayed incredibly low, even in the “Lost Decade”. Japanese technical colleges – the senmongakko – educate a fifth of all school leavers in vocational courses. Tuition at senmongakko costs more than in most universities, yet many students take a vocational course alongside their degree, such is their value in getting a job. At secondary level too, technical kosen schools – which take students to higher education on a vocational path – are massively over-subscribed. Both kosen and senmongakko graduates have outstanding employment rates.
In contrast, we in Britain fail too many young people not on track to “traditional” higher education. Employers see basic skills and young people are too often left with qualifications of little value.
We have discussed this for 30 years and more. Yet far too little has changed. As in Japan, we need better technical education at secondary and post-16 levels.
Schools must first give all pupils the essential foundations of technical education – literacy, numeracy and science.
We should also encourage innovation in technical education like University Technical Colleges (UTC). I’m delighted we will have a UTC in Warwick, but Britain needs hundreds more like it.