As the soggy end of summer makes way for autumn and a new academic year, it is traditionally a time for fresh starts and new hopes. Except with rising student debts and pitiful pay for apprentices, September has become a time for brave leaps in the dark.
When this year’s cohort of young adults embark on their studies, many will carry with them stories of older friends and siblings, long since graduated but still searching for decent work. Anecdotal evidence of graduates working in bars and as receptionists is well-known. Now it has been backed up by a damning report on the state of Britain’s jobs market. Researchers found that due to a mismatch between the number of university leavers and the jobs appropriate to their skills, more than half of the UK’s graduates are in non-graduate jobs. This is one of the highest rates in Europe.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the trade group for the HR sector that commissioned the study, warned graduate overqualification had reached “saturation point” and was squeezing lower-qualified workers out of jobs. It bemoaned the crude approach to addressing the UK’s poor productivity growth with a “conveyor belt of graduates” and quite rightly pointed out the situation was unsustainable, given that the government estimates that 45% of university graduates will not earn enough to repay their student loans.
The finding that the skills and energy of young people are being squandered chimes with separate evidence that the old routes to promotion and higher pay for young workers are being closed off.
While welcome in many ways, a rise in job stability in the UK over the last two decades has stymied the careers of young people, according to research from the Resolution Foundation thinktank. Its labour market experts say a drop in the rate at which people move between jobs since the financial crisis in 2008 is likely to reduce the prospects for promotion, pay rises and productivity gains. The effect on wages was underlined by their finding that the typical earnings of 30-year-olds born in 1983 – whose early careers were hit by the downturn, when the rate of job-to-job moves dropped sharply – were around £2,800 a year lower than those born five years earlier.
Under pressure as a result, the government has pledged to create 3m apprenticeships by 2020, to show it is providing wider options to young people and skilled workers for employers.
Providing teenagers are given information about getting onto such apprenticeships – and that is by no means a given – they can provide a route into a career with real prospects. But the quality of apprenticeships on offer remains patchy. And with the apprentice minimum wage less than half the main national minimum wage, even after it rises to £3.30 in October, it is little wonder this route remains off-limits to some young people.
Whether they are being threatened with the Conservatives’ new jobseeker boot camps or working for a pittance, things look bleak for young people. And yet, the UK labour market appears to be absorbing hundreds of thousands of immigrants. News last week that annual net migration to Britain hit a record level of 330,000 in the year to March may have been way above the government’s target, but came as little surprise to anyone following the ups and downs of the UK’s jobs market.
The latest figures showed almost three-quarters of the UK’s employment growth in the past year was accounted for by non-UK citizens. The number of non-UK nationals working in Britain increased by 257,000 to 3.2 million, while the number of working UK nationals rose by 84,000 to 27.8 million.
But rather than misguidedly blaming immigrants for “taking our jobs”, surely we should be trying to understand more about those coming to the UK, for the most part, with a firm job offer already in their pocket. In fact, 61% of EU citizens immigrating for work had a definite job to go to, according to the latest migration figures for the year to March.
What makes the UK jobs market so attractive to these immigrants? And what makes these immigrants so attractive to UK employers? Those are the questions ministers should be asking, rather than coming up with arbitrary targets for apprenticeships.
On university courses, too, the CIPD is right to conclude that the UK must “take stock now of whether our higher education system is delivering desired returns for graduates, for organisations, and society”.
Alongside a better understanding of skills needs, there must be decidedly better advice for pupils. Michael Gove, the former education secretary, demolished expert face-to-face careers advice for schoolchildren and left teachers to fill the gap, with no extra funds. After parliament’s education committee castigated his successor Nicky Morgan and cited cases of school receptionists giving careers advice, she must be hoping a newly created advisory body, the Careers and Enterprise Company, marks a turning point.
The ad hoc, opaque approach of recent years must make way for accessible advice that gives young people at least some idea of what they are getting into and where it might lead.
Of course, education – be it apprenticeships, further education college courses or university – is about much more than getting a good pay packet. But for the apprentice putting up with measly pay or the undergraduate coughing up thousands of pounds in fees, there has to be more hope that their heavy investment will pay off.