The chancellor should heed the lesson of a school-leaver with one GCSE who now has a top job in the City
'This is the stage where people either make it in life or don't make it in life. They go to college or do gang culture." Daniel Clarke thinks back to the summer he left school in East London with one GCSE. A bright student, with six older siblings – "all very successful" in his words – the teenager was overwhelmed with family members pushing him to pay attention.
He did anything but. "I didn't really take school life seriously. There were a lot of distractions." And so he left secondary school without the grades to go on to A-levels and no qualifications to tout to potential employers.
What happened next is a lesson in labour market mechanics that any government would do well to consider.
For one facing near-record youth unemployment it should be essential reading. And that is precisely where George Osborne finds himself as he prepares to announce on Wednesday how the coalition will squeeze out another £11.5bn in cuts. At one in five, the unemployment rate for 16-24-year-olds is more than double the rate in the working population of all ages. More than a million young people in Britain are Neets – not in education, employment or training. Clarke did not become one of them, but is now in a senior role at a major accountancy firm in the City and responsible for 350 clients.
That is thanks largely to four things: work experience, careers advice, vocational training and employers who gave a young person a chance. All four are now woefully lacking in the UK.
Realising that the summer he left school was a make or break moment, the 16-year-old signed up for a vocational course at sixth-form college. It was there that a charity, Career Academies UK, put him on a new path. It had launched one of its "academies" in the college, one of 180 schemes now running in the UK, predominantly in areas of social need.
As well as college studies, students undertake extra assignments designed to give them the "employability" skills that so many companies complain are lacking among young people. They practise interviews, build a CV, learn to search for jobs and, most crucially, do a six-week paid internship. For Clarke it was with oil traders at Citigroup in one of the Canary Wharf skyscrapers that had dominated the skyline and yet felt so out of reach growing up in nearby Walthamstow.
The internship changed everything. "I was an 18 year-old in a suit and going to work every day with people that earn £2.5m a year. I realised 'Wow. I am here. I'm not on the outside. I have my own pass, I have my own meetings'. I felt this is something I can do, be part of." The experience inspired him to go on to get a first-class degree – "my mum is lost for words" – followed by a job with a recruitment firm and now his role in the City.
Clarke's story is one of a bridge between school and work that was already wobbly when the coalition came to power and is now crumbling. Take away charities like Career Academies UK and for many teenagers very little is left in the way of advice or opportunities.
Firstly, compulsory work experience has been removed, depriving many young people of that vital first insight into the world of work. Employers, manufacturers especially, have complained too that the move will diminish their opportunities to work with schools and to introduce themselves as potential career choices for schoolchildren.
Secondly, responsibility for careers guidance has been taken from local authorities and handed to schools. The change was lambasted by the Commons education select committee which said there was evidence of a "worrying deterioration" in the overall standard of careers advice.
In the committee's words: "Independent careers advice and guidance has never been as important as it is now … Young people deserve better than the service they are likely to receive under the current arrangements."
One of the biggest risks in leaving careers advice to schools is that teachers will lack knowledge of options beyond more education. It will entrench an already damaging British bias towards the university route and shrink awareness of vocational options – all while another arm of government, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), is pouring money into apprenticeships.
For those young people unwilling to risk the huge costs of a degree only to join the one in five new graduates out of work, the lack of alternative advice is frustrating. Pupils complain that "careers fairs" in schools are made up almost entirely of university stands. They also need to hear about employers looking for school-leavers and more specifically, those offering apprenticeships.
Apprenticeships have been an important policy for the coalition and the numbers have almost doubled since this government came to power.
The gains have raised Britain to a level more akin to Germany and Austria, which have youth unemployment rates at 7.5% and 8%, respectively. But scratch beneath the surface and the message for young people and the economy is less rosy. There were 520,600 apprenticeship starts in the academic year 2011/12, up 86% from 2009/10. But the increase was driven largely by a surge in people aged 25 and over, with 44% of new apprentices now over 25, up from 18% in 2009/10.
Furthermore, more than half the increase was made up of apprenticeships in business administration and retail. Less than 10% were in manufacturing and engineering – so much for manning Osborne's "march of the makers".
If this government is as serious as it says it is about apprenticeships in particular and social mobility in general, it needs to get young people into the sectors it champions as future drivers of growth. For their part, employers must wake up to the costs of not employing and training young people.
Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggests 56% of employers intend to recruit a young person this year. And yet, other studies suggest boosting the UK's skills base, such as training up young people, would go a long way to addressing the problem of falling productivity. Even before they are trained, young people bring a freshness to any workforce. Contrast this with your own colleagues: This summer's school-leavers were born in a year that brought the world Dolly the cloned sheep, the term weblog was coined and the first social networks were being founded. For them, modern technology is second nature.
Shutting that generation out is economically reckless. Taking away their independent careers advice is socially reckless. Abandoning them to cross the path from school into a torrid labour market alone is unforgivable.
Clarke won't even contemplate what might have been. "Where would I be now? It's a scary thought, I don't really like to think about that … Some of my good friends are in prison."
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