Tony Blair asked us to reject the idea that Britain is broken. However, the Young Fabians – never to accept any one view without question, debate and a few committee meetings - thought that further investigation was and is necessary. Certainly, there was blatant opportunist criminality in the youth riots and, likely, a small minority who operate ‘beyond the pale’ involved. But the scale, spread and nature of the unrest does seem to indicate something more; something wrong with our society. A very large number of young people have demonstrated a lack of connection to, or investment in, their communities and a separation from the norms of society. It would be wrong to be complacent about this challenge.
Of course, the issues can’t be looked at in isolation. The roots are in education, in the economy, in housing, in public service provision, and elsewhere. But just because something is complicated isn’t a justification for giving up on constructive solutions.
Over the last five months, Joani Reid has been leading the Young Fabian “Securing the Future of the Next Generation” Policy Commission to provide analysis of the broader problems hitting British youth.
As part of the effort to analyse the issues, last week, the Young Fabians teamed up with A4e to visit Brixton to try and better understand the skills and employment challenges in the area. Myself, Joel Mullan, Vincenzo Rampulla and Joani Reid all took part in the site visit and held a series of interviews at the Brixton A4e training centre.
What follows is not an exhaustive analysis, but a short personal report from what felt like a very worthwhile visit – and something that the current Young Fabian Executive would like to repeat, with other partners and other areas.
Firstly – without comparing it to its competitors (because we didn’t visit any on this occasion) – I, for one, was very impressed by A4e as an outfit.
There was a huge amount of optimism and energy in the building. I suggested that a lack of jobs in the economy might be an insurmountable problem for the centre, but they went on to tell me about all the vacancy relationships they’d built up to secure job opportunities. For example, a recently secured relationship with WHSmith enabled them to link forthcoming major recruitment rounds with training programmes in local areas.
I was also impressed by A4e’s emphasis on making sure the people of an area benefitted from big investment projects. It was clear that they rejected the idea that high value added investment, like the Silicon Roundabout, are just opportunities for high skilled talent to move into the area, but advocated, with enough time, planning and upskilling, the opportunities for unemployed local people. This approach offers a stern challenge to those who are satisfied with mere trickle-down benefits for the local community from cleaning jobs and selling sandwiches.
At a broader level here are a five big insights for policy thinking that I took away from the interviews and meetings:
1. We need a tailored and sequenced approach to helping jobseekers.
People differ widely and so do their needs. In Brixton, the range was from job-hungry out of work professionals who had just been hit by the downturn, to those in need of skills training and with an appetite to learn, to those with much more severe health, drugs, drink, or housing problems. Particularly for those in at-risk categories, their issues need to be dealt with in the right order in order to be effective, and to reach sustainable and gainful employment as an end goal. One size doesn’t fit all. We shouldn’t talk as if it does.
2. Business, educators and jobseekers shouldn’t operate in isolation.
Our current general modus operandi – of employers wandering blindly into skills shortages, trainers training without a clear view of an end goal, and jobseekers floundering in the middle – indicates some room for improvement. It may make more sense to encourage as much communication and planning between: what businesses need, which they often know many months in advance of the time; what the educators can provide; and the aspirations and development-reach of the jobseeker. The free market is a brutally efficient model of clearing, but it is not perfection. There is value in thinking about the limits of a wage/price solution. Greater understanding and planning across the silos can help.
3. Culture matters and for-profit shouldn’t be a dirty word.
Organisational culture is of the utmost significance. It struck me very telling that A4e refer jobseekers as ‘customers’.
Public service in general should be very far removed from a tick-box process of ‘recipients’, and be, as far as possible, about enabling committed and motivated individuals to have a personal stake in the experience of public service ‘customers’. This is not to bash state provision, just a nudge to try and dislodge any automated revulsion to the concept of for-profit public service. At the very least, we should try and incorporate the motivation and innovation that ‘for-profit’ can, sometimes, demonstrate into all aspects of public service.
4. We should do everything we can to make work pay.
In interviews with ‘customers’, it was clear that there was an entrenched view out there that welfare can pay more than work can. We need to tread carefully here, maintaining the protection for the vulnerable, for mothers and for the down-and-out. But we must do all we can to make employment attractive. While it feels like there is some way to go on this challenging agenda, it is should be at the forefront of policy makers minds. Part of the solution must lie with a relentless effort to raise aspirations in all communities, especially the most deprived.
This is no easy feat.
5. We need bigger thinking on internships.
In an interview with a highly educated jobseeker with two degrees and ambitions in the fashion industry, who had been out of work for over a year, it struck that he was being led on a path that was corrosive to his sense of purpose and confidence, as well as being costly to the economy. His university careers advice centred on the importance of getting experience and an internship to make it in his career of choice. Many readers in the political world will, no doubt, be familiar with this advice. He was financial-capital poor, but human-capital rich. If he went on an internship, he claimed he would lose his housing benefit and employment benefit; a non-option without family support in London. If he took a minimum wage job, the option presented to him by the jobseeker system, he saw only the prospect of working very long hours just to keep his head above water, without any surplus income to save.
The unsympathetic might say he should take whatever job is coming, and be grateful. But surely it makes no sense to consign those who have benefitted from a high level of education to the near poverty trap of minimum wage jobs – not from the perspective of jobseekers self-worth, nor when trying to enable the greatest possible constructive contributions to society, nor when trying to make good on the state’s investment in education, and nor in our effort to encourage the flourishing of high value added employment in the UK.
A potential solution might be (with lots of weaknesses no-doubt, but also some merit): a one-shot universal jobseekers credit for, let’s say, a 6-month unpaid internship? Bolstering skills development, entrenching high-value added jobs and making the UK a more attractive place to locate business, all the while costing the state less (bearing in mind how long this category might otherwise be on welfare). Accepting internship exists rather than trying to wish them away, this could level the playing field for entry to high-skilled professions and be a significant boost for businesses.
‘One Big Chance’ internships – you heard it here first.
Policy Commissions and Young Fabian next steps: everyone should get involved
Joani and Joel are taking forward the thinking in the “Securing the Future of the Next Generation” Policy Commission. The next Anticipations edition will also have a heavy focus on the Squeezed Youth theme.
Tony Blair may be right about the need to focus on the hard to reach dysfunctional families. Or perhaps we do have a broken society and there are big ideas needed to address a lack of hope or prospects in communities up and down the country, hitting the young hardest.
Regardless, if you want to contribute to the thinking and the debate, there are plenty of opportunities with the Young Fabians. Stay tuned for information about a debate on what to learn from the riots.
Please get in touch if you would like to be involved, at any level.
Nick Maxwell is Partnerships Officer for the Young Fabians