Youth unemployment a growing problem

22:37, Oct 25 2011

Given the times, New Zealand's unemployment is not running too badly compared with other countries.

But there is one segment of our employment figures shockingly high: the number of jobless young people has surged to its highest point in nearly 20 years.

Nearly one in five of those under 25 years is without work, and 27 per cent of our teenagers.

It is a global problem, as the riots in Britain and Europe this year underlined. Youth unemployment hit a new peak as young people found it harder to get work and were usually the first to be laid off.

But in the central North Island town of Otorohanga, there is virtually zero youth unemployment, thanks to a commitment from the entire town.

Otorohanga runs 11 programmes to help keep young people in work, but they are not in work gangs or out picking up rubbish.


Rather, they are being offered courses directly related to local industries and matched with local firms.

A co-ordinator helps iron out problems between bosses and apprentices and ensures they complete their studies; a counsellor contacts all school leavers; and a worker with Maori students helps raise their sights.

Mayor Dale Williams attributes the town's success to pastoral care.

"It's supporting young people at that vulnerable teenage age, as they're transitioning from education, which is prescriptive, whereas the reality of communities, of jobs, of life, is quite a bit different."

Williams, who also chairs the Mayors' Taskforce for Jobs, is reluctant to be too political but he does feel strongly that the current system is too cost-centred and narrowly targeted.

"Labour is advocating that all young people be supported as they transition, and I agree. National has said they're going to put their energy into the 16 and 17-year-old groups and those at risk.

"Now, I don't agree with that. It's too limited. Somebody is then forced with pre-assessing who's at risk and then it becomes very subjective and selective. In my opinion, you throw a blanket over every lever, don't discriminate, offer them the same support and you'll be amazed what comes out."

Williams also believes some of the current system's programmes are stop-gap measures. He is referring in particular to Job Ops and Community Max, two work subsidy programmes that came in during the heat of the recession to get people off the dole.

"Political parties have to understand if we're going to get a generational, cultural shift in results, it's got to be a long-term commitment. You're dealing with teenage kids who are a whole lot of hassle at times, and it's not as cut and dried as, 'Oh, well if we give you this money, you'll achieve that.' It really isn't."

The main direction of both National and Labour governments in recent years has been to get in before bad habits develop, and target secondary school pupils with some clear pathways to work.

National's election pledge is to target 16 and 17-year-olds and those deemed at risk. It would offer many more places in the current courses available, as well as places on a short military camp-based confidence course.

"We focus resources on those who need it most, rather than Labour's attitude which is simply to throw money at everything in sight and hope that some of it sticks," Social Development and Employment Minister Paula Bennett says.

"We've unashamedly refocused training programmes to have a work focus and education to be aimed at gaining qualifications that matter, whereas Labour was happy to just fill up the class and recycle young people endlessly through substandard training."

LABOUR'S key election plank is converting the dole to thousands of apprenticeships, but youth affairs spokesperson Jacinda Ardern says that is not the sum of its plan.

It is taking a three-fold approach, aimed at building up the economy, more training particularly for Maori and Pacific youth, and a more comprehensive approach to handling school leavers.

Ardern says this does not mean a return to the "train and hope" practices of the past.

She says a Labour government would work more closely beside industry groups and iwi "to make sure they're training for jobs that will exist".

She also feels many young school leavers are slipping through the cracks.

"I met a young girl who found her apprenticeship by Google-ing. While it's great she took the initiative to do it, we can't take that chance.

"Our youth transition service is only placing about 6000 [a year]. They don't have all the information on the school-leavers in their area, they're reliant on goodwill. They pick up kids sometimes a year after they've been doing nothing. It has to be much more comprehensive."

One of the most controversial aspects of the youth employment debate is "youth rates", a lower minimum wage for young people which was recently abolished.

THE ACT Party is relatively alone on this score, maintaining businesses need the incentive to offer work to the less experienced.

Business New Zealand's chief executive Phil O'Reilly says businesses need some recognition of the risks they are taking.

"We know that the employment prospects for young people with no or low skills and/or experience are very sensitive to wage levels, so we need to ensure that taking on apprentices and employing young people is an attractive proposition for employers."

But Dale Williams believes one of the biggest contributions the country could make towards young people right now is to be considered a valuable resource.

He bristles at the term "at-risk youth".

"I hate that term because every teenager I've ever met is at risk of something," he notes. "Kids stumble, you know. Kids trip up.

"What I see always is, how do we stop kids getting into trouble and how do we do it for the cheapest possible way . . . If everyone's walking around saying, these kids are at trouble, these kids are at risk, kids pick up on that negativity."

He may have a point.

A wave of unrest this year, from Wall Street to Spain, Italy, Greece and Britain, has been linked to a toxic mix of youth unemployment, austerity measures and growing political alienation.

Last week the International Labour Organisation, ILO, warned that a "scarred generation" was developing that "at best, has become disheartened for the future, and, at worst, has become angry and violent".

August's riots in England also prompted much public soul searching. With a youth unemployment rate similar to New Zealand, the British government is moving to tighten immigration to protect local jobs.

However, confidence in young workers has a long way to go. In a revealing recent survey, 34 per cent of British bosses said they planned to hire European migrants rather than upskill existing workers or recruit more graduates.

This is no surprise to Liz Emerson, of British think tank the Intergenerational Foundation, who believes Britain is reaping what it has sown.

Young people had received inadequate schooling, were bombarded with advertisements for goods they could not afford and watched older generations trying to beat the system. They did not have a vote and the government continued not to make them a financial priority.

"You've got a younger generation watching older generations going on strike for pensions they will never, ever see."

Her concern after the riots was that society would say "these children are feral, let's lock them up and throw away the key . . . when actually the people responsible for these children are their parents, who are the children of baby boomers.

"All generations are at fault, not just the younger generation."

Could such a thing happen here? One person who can see both sides of the fence is Bryan Gould.

A former Waikato University vice-chancellor and former contender for the British Labour Party leadership, he says New Zealand cannot be complacent about its youth.

"Young people make up a higher proportion of our unemployment total [at 45 per cent] than in any other OECD country and [unlike Britain] we can't blame immigration for that."

Gould says there is good work being done to break down the barriers between school and tertiary education. However, like Labourites here, he believes the real answer lies in the approach New Zealand takes to job creation.

"Full employment, not government deficits, should be the prime objective of policy in present circumstances.

"We are building huge problems for the future."

The Dominion Post