Everyone has suffered as a result of the outbreak of COVID-19 making it difficult to single out any one section of society as more deserving of our attention than another.
We must protect the vulnerable and save lives; just as we must find ways to allow businesses to re-open before catastrophic economic collapse. We must support our hospitals and care homes; while also recognising the financial hardship and mental health of individuals struggling under lockdown.
It is a huge balancing act. And a monumental timing issue.
But there is a group of people whose particular challenges have not been given full consideration. While the ongoing studies of school and college students have been roundly discussed, who is worrying about those who are about to leave full-time education?
There is a generation of young people who will face an unprecedented lack of employment opportunities and I believe that it is time to put their futures firmly on the agenda.
Many young people will sadly get swept up in the inevitable redundancies or will have had job offers retracted. Those at the end of their schooling will be left with grades based on an incomplete curriculum. Many will also have missed vital careers guidance, as they also see the number of vacancies diminish drastically. It’s easy to imagine those in their final year of studies looking ahead with dread and trepidation.
Moreover, this is the same group of people who are likely to have found lockdown hardest, while at the same time reportedly being the least susceptible to the virus. They need their own roadmap out of this crisis.
Over the past few years, we have seen youth unemployment fall. Before coronavirus, Scotland was looking at its best ever employment figures. In 2019 the unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds in Scotland was 9.1 percent, down from a peak in 2012 of 21.2 percent, and the lowest in the past ten years.
This had been achieved, in part, because of a focus on developing the young workforce following the financial crisis of 2008 and while this gives us something of a blueprint for going forward, the challenge is likely to be even greater post coronavirus. Not only are the numbers of out of work school leavers expected to be higher, but the world has changed along with the type of skills needed for the jobs of the future.
In recent years, the Government has encouraged and funded initiatives that have begun to build substantive links between schools and businesses. Last year, my own programme to get young people into jobs called Hand Picked made it possible for over 1,300 school children in Fife to meet with and learn essential job skills directly from local business people. Staff employed by CR Smith arranged for more than 45 employers to deliver a harmonised programme of workshops on CVs, cover letters and interview skills in the classrooms of six high schools in our community. Many more employers have participated in our Hand Picked Academies or worked with us to provide short term paid work placements to give young people a proper understanding of workplace expectations.
Since 2012, Hand Picked has been one aspect of our investment in young people and over recent years we have had Scottish Government backing because of its phenomenal success rate for getting young people into employment. What we have works because it has been built by employers with a business-needs approach.
As we think about the post pandemic future, programmes such as Hand Picked cannot be lost, but they will have to adapt. This might mean more instruction online and workshops re-shaped for smaller groups; new ways to embed work experience into the curriculum as well as reinventing what this might look like with social distancing and more remote working. Every aspect must also to be considered alongside realistic expectations of businesses to take on and train young people.
Our own experience is that most businesses will try to do the right thing to support young people in their community, so how do we tap into this in a more structured way? Where do apprenticeships, which have made great progress over recent years, fit in with the new recruitment landscape? And what support can be given to employers to include young people on their staff?
When setting up Hand Picked, I recognised that there was a large group of young people who did not have the network of support that could help steer them into a job. And if we are honest with ourselves, most of us were given a leg-up by someone we knew when we started out. As a consequence of the pandemic, creating such a support network will be even more vital for many more young people.
To ensure we do not lose a generation to the depression of inactivity, the connections between schools, school leavers and businesses must be deepened. We need to think about what we teach in schools, how businesses interact with school leavers and how government and employers work together to ensure we have a future workforce capable of contributing to Scotland’s economic recovery.
- Gerard Eadie is the Executive Chairman of CR Smith and founder of the Hand Picked jobs programme