Mal Fletcher
Unemployment Boot Camps - Bad Branding, Potentially Good Idea

Time, as always, will tell, but the UK government’s proposed new training programmes for unemployed young people may be a step in the right direction.

If handled correctly, they may help to boost employability in some and self-respect in the majority of their participants. That is, as much as any government initiative can.

The plans involve compulsory jobcentre classrooms across the country, where people aged 18 to 21 who are supported by the Jobseeker’s allowance will practise job applications and interview techniques.

More importantly perhaps, each person will be assigned a coach, who will continue to work with them for the first six months of their unemployment, if it lasts that long.

The Times today cites a senior Cabinet Office source as saying that any 18 to 21-year-old not in education, training or work would have to attend the boot camps (I’ll come to the name in a moment).

Jobseeker’s allowance would only be given to those who undertake work-focused activities, including the camps.

Recent youth employment statistics reveal a slight decline in unemployment rates for some parts of the EU. (Arguably, they could not have grown much larger, without growing social strife of one form or another.)

Youth unemployment rates have been growing across most of the EU since about 2004. The rate across the EU still stands at a worrying 20 percent.

In Portugal, the youth unemployment rate is just above 33 percent. In Greece and Spain, it still sits at a staggering 49 percent.

A fall, however slight, would be very welcome news for nations like these.

I’ve visited Portugal in a professional capacity on several occasions. It is a nation which has a long and proud history of producing entrepreneurs.

I’ve been asked by the media and press there what can be done about the youth brain drain that has afflicted entire sectors of post-recession industry.

The answers are far from simple, of course, and the systemic, economic nuances involved are above the pay grade of this commentator.

The obvious bottom line, however, is restoring public and investor confidence, the foundational currency in any economy.

Human destiny, whether individually or collectively, is determined primarily not by events such as recessions, but by emotional and rational responses to those events.

Confidence can be hard-won, taking a long time to establish, yet it can be very quickly lost.

Restoring confidence in a society’s future begins with rebuilding trust in the capacity of its government to provide a positive vision, workable strategies, human support and a sharing of the load.

The young are particularly sensitive to real or perceived systemic injustices, as they have very little invested in the status quo and so look at it with a different set of values and expectations.

For this reason, youth unemployment is an important factor behind the rise of less centre-of-the-road political groups within the European region.

Here in the UK, one might argue that the popularity of Labour's leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn, an old-school socialist, is partly the result of understandable youth disgruntlement about the opportunities presently on offer to them.

If recent EU stats are reliable, confidence is only now just beginning to return to some southern European economies, after a long period of soul-searching.

It is still tenuous, with much still riding on how the Eurozone conducts itself in the wake of the proposed new Greek bailout.

When it comes to younger people, regaining trust after a social upheaval is often harder to achieve – and governments must take a more patient, long-view approach.

In comparison to some of its European neighbours, the UK has suffered less in terms of youth unemployment and unemployment generally.

Yet there is still much work to be done and Britain should try to take a lead.

If its new policy is to be effective, the UK government must first of all ensure that its focus is on providing relief, motivation and support for young people.

The primary, overriding focus must not be on achieving unemployment targets or reducing the number of benefits claimants.

There must be proper consideration, too, of the psychological implications of longer term unemployment, especially for younger minds.

Studies have shown that, in terms of human psychology, the most damaging aspect of sustained unemployment is the damage done to the stories we tell about ourselves.

Our day-to-day employment provides an important plank in our sense of our place in and importance to society.

Retrenched or retraining workers often find that it is the re-tooling of this self-narrative, as distinct from learning new skills, that is the hardest thing to achieve whilst they’re in transition.

If the government will work closely with the business and education sectors, it can play an important role in facilitating a better narrative arc for the young.

For this policy to work, it must also undergo a little rebranding.

If the term “boot camps”, currently attached to the policy in newspapers, is derived from someone in the government, it (and possibly they) should be dropped like the proverbial warm potato.

It pulls up images of military conscription and will do absolutely nothing to assuage fears of government heavy-handedness toward the young – and the poor.

Having dealt with the name, the government must ensure that the coaches it employs are well trained and motivated.

They must also be carefully monitored. The recent decline of the Kids Company charity reminds us that alleged misuse of government funds can be as problematic in the support of a good cause as a bad one.

The monitoring of coaches, however, must not morph into micro-management, which would turn them into pen-pushing, form-filling bureaucrats who have little time to deal with people.

The training programmes on offer must feature the development of entrepreneurial skills.

Of late, universities have begun to include training in entrepreneurialism within their business schools.

They recognise that new technologies and businesses are born out of pioneer thinking, planning and acting. Entrepreneurs are a very particular breed and the mix of skillsets they utilise is unique.

They need to be given their own space within the educational framework.

While colleges are beginning to respond to this, secondary schools offer next to nothing along this line.

The government's new programmes should recognise the importance of promoting entrepreurialism and build a component of it into their training and individual coaching.

Drawing some of the more reluctant young participants into the scheme must be carried out in a firm but fair-minded way.

The goal must always be demonstrating belief and support – even, at times, if that means some “tough love”.

As long as the emphasis is on doing what is in the other’s best interests – not being tough for it’s own sake.

Finally, the government must keep its promise to create three million new apprenticeships by 2020. Indeed, this should be seen as a bottom-line goal, as distinct from a top expectation.

When it comes to boosting the employability of the young and, in some cases, breaking the cycle of generational unemployment, under-pledging and over-performing is preferable to the alternative.

If this goal is not achieved, young people will continue to emerge from training – as many do now from universities – to find that the jobs they’ve worked toward simply are not on offer.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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