Labour proposes to make unemployed young people between 18-21, without a level 3 (equivalent to A-level) qualification ineligible for Job Seekers Allowance (70% of current youth claimants are in this category). Identified as a further rolling back of the welfare state by most critics –it’s been unveiled alongside plans to make eligibility for full JSA dependent on 5 rather than 2 years of National Insurance payments –it also represents a further change in thinking in relation to labour market and skills policy.
Labour has taken its cue from the centre-left think-tank the IPPR’s argument that because JSA eligibility requires claimants to be available for work it therefore prevents unemployed young people from signing up for more training. The IPPR (and now Labour) wants to create a distinct ‘work, training and benefits track’ for those who do not attend university. Young people who do sign up for level 3 courses (likely to be vocational qualifications with functional skills) will receive a new Youth Allowance payment, though this will be heavily means tested against parental income.
Labour and the IPPR proposals illustrate the extent to which social democrats continue to endorse Neo-Liberal ideas about education and training and the belief that because the 21st century economy is a high skills economy then future ‘employability’ of young people depends on them acquiring more qualifications. This can be contrasted with the ‘Social Jobs Fund’ approach of the previous Labour government which, despite its limitations, provided employers with subsidies to take on unemployed youth, implying, at least in part, that there were not enough jobs for young people to apply for.
It is true that increasing levels of qualifications improves the chances of ‘employability’ but this is not in the way that Neo-Liberal thinking portrays. There are still plenty of low skilled jobs available, many of which are difficult or not cost-effective to automate. The first problem is that evident shows employers reluctant to employ young people – modern labour markets and the 24/7 nature of many of new jobs meaning there are plenty of other applicants to draw from. The second problem is, as surveys also show; many young people, particularly graduates, ‘trade down’ to jobs they are overqualified for, as the number of high skilled, professional and managerial jobs fail to meet demand.
Of course, all young people should be eligible for free training (and free HE for that matter), but welfare and financial benefits should not be dependent on this and education ‘entitlements’ need to be accompanied by job creation policies, including an apprenticeship system that allows progression to proper employment. Without this, the danger is that education credentials continue to be no more than a ‘positional good’ only helping to improve your relative position in the jobs queue; with education itself ending up a race to the bottom.