'We risk losing a generation to joblessness'

Teenage Students Sitting Examination With Teacher Invigilating

David Thomas is not worried about students taking exams, rather them getting jobs - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you see a story in the press about young people and the impacts of Covid-19, it is probably a story about exams. As a secondary school headteacher I'm the last person to say that exams aren't important. But as we move closer to the summer of 2021 I'm not worried about our young people taking exams. I'm worried about them getting jobs. 

Getting a job quickly after you leave education really matters. If you don't get a job when you leave school, college or university, then the odds of you getting one later plummet. We saw this a decade ago in the financial crisis. School leavers from 2009 were less likely to be in work than school leavers from a normal year, even five years after the crisis had passed. 

The Resolution Foundation, a think tank, estimate that young people who left school after A-levels in 2020 will be 27% more likely to still be unemployed in three years' time. For those who leave school after GCSEs it gets worse - they'll be 37% less likely to have a job in three years. Although these estimates are bad, reality could be worse. The sectors hit hardest by Covid-19 are the ones that often employ young people, and this research doesn't take that into account. 

The generation who are finishing education under Covid-19 have had a hard time, but they've excelled themselves. They have had to show greater resilience than has been needed for decades. They adapted to learning online, with less support than normal, whilst needing to step up and support their families. The young people in my school have worked so hard that they're actually performing better academically than in a normal year. They should be an employer's dream. 

Yet without concerted effort, the risk is that we will lose a generation to joblessness. We can't let that happen. 

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Of course this is a difficult time for businesses everywhere, and nobody is sitting on a pile of unspent cash. Few employers can create jobs purely as a good deed. But there are some things that all employers can do to help. 

The first is to sign up for the government's Kickstart scheme. It pays the wage, national insurance and pension contribution if you give a six-month work placement to a 16-24 year old. You even get a grant to pay for their training. Inspiration Trust, the group of schools that I belong to, has applied to offer seventy placements through this scheme. We hope to train young people for roles as business administrators, teaching assistants, caretakers, caterers, and technicians. 

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Every business and charity in East Anglia should ask itself if it could offer a placement to help a young person get their first job. Smaller organisations can club together to meet the scale that's needed. 

The second is to offer apprenticeships where we possibly can. Every organisation should ask itself if it could support an apprentice, and do so if the answer is yes. I know from my school how many excellent young people there are who desperately want to enter the job market, and who would be fantastic employees. Often they stay in education longer than they'd want because there's a shortage of apprenticeships. Getting these young people into work early, so that they can train on the job and start contributing to your business sooner, is a win-win. 

The third is for all of us to view this generation as having had a formative experience that makes them readier for work than ever. There's plenty of talk in the press about the damage done to these young people. I actually think that the experiences they've had make them stronger, not weaker. I have been blown away by their resilience and determination. They're exactly the sort of people any employer would want in their workplace. 

So as we move into 2021, let's think about what we can do to help our young people into work. If we don't, we'll be feeling the consequences for many years to come. 

David Thomas is the Principal of Jane Austen College in Norwich and a co-founder of Oak National Academy, the online school to support teachers and families during Covid-19.

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