Andreas Whittam Smith: The jobless are our own fault, not anyone else's

A high proportion of businesses say that job-seekers lack basic literacy and numeracy

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Before we blame the eurozone crisis for sharply rising unemployment, there is a prior question to ask. How much of the deterioration is explained by our own homegrown failures? Quite a lot. A high proportion of businesses, for instance, say that job-seekers lack basic literacy and numeracy. This makes the transition from school to work problematic. And linked to this is our neglect of apprenticeships.

A study published this week by the Institute for Public Policy Research showed that in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, at least 40 per cent of school-leavers enter three-year apprenticeships leading to a recognised qualification. In England, only 6 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds were in apprenticeships in 2010, and apprenticeships here last, on average, just over one year.

Every country has its own weaknesses, and one of ours is a historic, persistent neglect of education and training. Yet if you examine the economic reforms being undertaken by Italy and Greece, to take a very different example, you see that both countries are addressing completely different sets of problems that simply don't exist here. These are the closed shops maintained by pharmacists, lawyers and civil engineers and many other services, and the restrictive practices in such activities as taxi driving and trucking. As our Continental neighbours would say, our disregard for education and training is "so British", while we view their medieval guild pattern of business in Italy and Greece as "so Mediterranean".

We have another home-grown problem – the sheer inefficiency of the public sector, amply illustrated in recent days by the travails of the UK Border Agency. Part of the reason why the public sector is losing jobs so quickly at present is that it spent the 10 years leading up to the recession expanding its workforce, year in, year out, yet becoming steadily less effective. Productivity declined by 0.3 per cent a year in this period. So while former Labour ministers criticise the latest unemployment figures, they bear a considerable part of the responsibility.

While the totals announced yesterday are worse than expected, the single headline conceals two very different employment markets, the public sector and the private sector. The former is in free-fall, whereas the latter is resilient.

Some 48 per cent of public-sector employers expect to announce redundancies over the next three months. On the other hand, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) reports that nearly half its members expect the size of their workforce to be larger in 12 months' time than it is today. And optimism regarding employment is particularly widespread among small and medium-sized companies. In fact, the private sector has been expanding every year since 1999, except for 2009 when the recession suddenly arrived.

A recent survey by The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development confirms the CBI findings. It says there is nothing "to show that a marked fall in private-sector employment is imminent". At the same time, and this rounds out the remarkably cheerful aspect that the private sector displays in this time of adversity, CBI survey findings indicate that job growth is expected among firms operating in every part of the UK, with the best outlook of all for businesses situated in Yorkshire and Humberside, the old industrial heartland. Who would have thought it? It is almost as if the private sector hasn't heard the dire warnings of a double dip recession.

None of this, however, is going to solve the problem of youth unemployment in a hurry. The only faint ray of sunshine is that graduate job prospects are slowly improving. Nonetheless, each applicant competes with 82 others for every vacancy. As for those young people without qualifications, the prospect is indeed grim. I believe that in the short term, the only palliatives will be provided by charities working with young people. The state, after all, is going the other way. Across England, spending cuts have hit youth services badly.

Here are two examples. The first is "somewhereto" (www.somewhereto.com), which describes itself as a nationwide project to help young people find the space they need to do the things they love within sport, culture and the arts. It is run by Livity, in partnership with Channel 4. By "space", it means structured space with adult mentoring, friendly advice, and things to do. It badgers public and private organisations to help.

A second is the Source Café in Aldershot (www.cuf.org.uk/stories/source-cafe). In its own words, along with a café and space where teenagers can meet friends and spend time off the streets in an accepting, welcoming environment, the project also provides counselling and mentoring, helping young people to address problems including anger and frustration, low self-esteem or anxiety, which prevent them from achieving their goals.

For the young unemployed, such initiatives are not the future, but they are a better way of surviving the grim here and now. So self-help is the only available way forward, and the eurozone crisis has nothing to do with the matter at all.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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