An interesting day of meetings in Manchester yesterday to talk about youth unemployment, apprenticeships, youth contract, and the Work Programme. Particularly topical, as it was a day when these were all in the news nationally.
I had been invited to a morning meeting hosted by Voluntary Sector North West with a small and select group (and me) of voluntary sector organisations from across the North West. We were meeting (although Richard called it a summit) to talk about the Youth Contract, our experiences of Future Jobs Fund and apprenticeships, and importantly what the role for voluntary sector organisations could be to tackle youth unemployment– and what additional support is needed to help them do more.
A number of things struck me. Firstly, a stark reminder about the sheer number of young people not in employment, education or training – over a million, the highest level for generations. There was a real sense that, because of the values within our sector, that we want to help address youth unemployment, and not just use some of the initiatives (which I talk about below) as a source of free or cheap labour – we want to give young people a meaningful, relevant, supportive experience.
Secondly, a reminder about the great role that small organisations played through the Future Jobs Fund (FJF) Scheme, which finished last year, helping young people by giving them six month placements. T3SC hosted four FJF trainees over the 18 months that FJF ran - Kirsty, Lee, David and Marie – and they were brilliant. Helpful, willing, and I hope that their time with T3SC, and the experience and support we gave them, has helped them go on to bigger and better things. It certainly brought some new ideas and skills into the organisation, and gave some of our team some fantastic experience in managing people, their first time of doing so. In Tameside, over 20 small voluntary organisations took FJF trainees, and although the scheme wasn’t perfect, it had a huge amount of merit.
Our meeting took place at the same time as the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was launching the latest element of the Youth Contract. The Youth Contract was originally announced in November, in response to the challenge of youth unemployment. What we realised at the meeting that understanding all of the ‘bits’ and initiatives - and I was with some very experienced providers of youth employment schemes – is really difficult for organisations.
Then there are a range of financial barriers. FJF worked because small organisations didn’t have to put money in themselves to pay the trainee – that funding came centrally. Of course, it wasn’t free for small organisations – they still had to support the trainee, and that came at a time cost. Whilst the concepts of apprenticeships are sound, one of the key differences between these and FJF is that the organisation has to pay the trainee themselves. Within the Youth Contract there are now a number of incentives to help small organisations meet some of the costs, there is still a real cash cost. Whilst this shouldn’t all be about money, I think that the T3SC is typical of the challenge that organisations face – when talking with our Board about apprenticeships they had a realistic view: 'Any cost to employ apprentices has to come from the staffing budget –we don’t have extra money'. So, a real dilemma – do I take on a young person through an apprenticeship, and have to make savings on staffing (and jobs) elsewhere, or not take on an apprentice to keep my permanent staff employed?
Whilst you can pay an apprentice as little as £2.60 an hour, we’ve taken the view that ethically we shouldn’t pay less than national minimum wage. Even with the incentives announced today, we would need to find about £7,500 to employ an apprentice for a year.
Of course, we are a principled organisation, like the vast majority in the sector. Many private, mainly retail, businesses have been using the eight week work experience and sector academies (other initiatives within the youth contract) simply as free labour – although this seems to be unravelling, with many of the retail giants now expressing concern. One interesting perspectives at the meeting was that these initiatives should be seen as creating opportunities for young people, rather than jobs, and are actually ongoing interviews – and therefore a positive thing. Perhaps Tesco’s et al actually have it right? (for the record – this wasn’t my view!)
After two hours of stimulating debate, the key question was: what can be done to help small voluntary sector organisations to contribute to tackling youth unemployment? We came up with some practical actions – a guide for small sector organisations about the different initiatives, and how to access them. Some guidance to help them think through the issues for their organisations (payment levels, considering equality etc). And, the biggest challenge of them all – money! We recognised that while some of the financial incentives within the Youth Contract help, they don’t cover nearly all of the costs, and other resources for organisations are shrinking. On this we need to do more work – if you’re a voluntary sector organisation, let me know what would help.
The afternoon was spent meeting with a Work Programme Prime contractor, who is working with the other primes for the area, to talk about a possible initiative in Tameside that they are considering. Whilst the idea of the Primes being ‘joined up’ and working together is long overdue, it is a huge, continuing frustration of mine the (misplaced) expectations about what the sector will do ‘for free’. I explained (again) that a number of local organisations had put in a huge amount of effort to engage with the work programme, but their experience had been poor. I said that most had given up, that they (you) were weary. Of course, it’s not just me saying this – yesterday NCVO for example saying that they were concerned about the number of referrals to the sector.
So, I suggested that a small pilot, with three or four organisations, with payment (rather than payment by results) would show good faith, and importantly demonstrate ‘proof of concept’ to the Primes for this specific initiative (another new one). Whilst I think the particular initiative they were suggesting has some merit, and could be really effective in starting people back on a journey towards work, why should small sector organisations shoulder all of the risk? I’ve agreed to work this up into a proposal, but am not hopeful that this will go any further.
So, as I say a topical day, and one which demonstrated to me how the environment is changing and becoming ever more difficult for small voluntary organisations. If you’re a voluntary organisation, I’d value your thoughts about what would help you to take on a young person, and your views about the youth contract and work programme.