I was most appreciative to have been invited in to No. 10 today to air WEXO’s views on youth unemployment…
1) What it’s like going to No. 10?
2) What was discussed?
3) What can be acheived?
1. WHAT’S IT LIKE GOING TO NO. 10?
If truth be told, I was a little apprehensive (a fair reminder of how many of you feel, when invited in for interviews). On arrival at Westminster, I manoeuvred my way through a throng of people alongside the Cenotaph and crisply announced that I was ‘here for a meeting at No. 10′. My credentials and bags checked, I strode on down Downing Street half expecting to bump into David (PM’s Question Time and a defence of GDP growth beckoned) or at least Nick Robinson (presumably contemplating whether Obama was born in America) but calm was all around.
Not sure what the protocol was, I rang the bell alongside the door which was instantly opened by an official looking gentleman who asked me to leave my phone in one of the cubby holes (Slot ’007′ was inauspiciously unoccupied but I plumped for it). I then obligingly took a seat below a long and winding staircase which conjured up visions of an seemingly ‘home-alone’ PM/Hugh Grant dancing down it.
2. WHAT WAS DISCUSSED?
My host, an assertive yet accommodating senior policy adviser with a testing mandate (Education, Welfare and Pensions), shortly emerged and there followed a concise yet considered exchange of views which hinged on ‘supply versus demand’, budgetary pressures and the role of government. Youth unemployment it seems is shortly to be moved up the agenda and it was encouraging that players like ourselves were to be consulted in plotting its demise.
One of the key concerns seemed not to be the apparent difference of opinion between DC and NC on access to work experience (understandably – I believe the two can be aligned: sharp elbows are fine so long as everyone knows where the starting line is); rather it was the current reluctance of companies to back ‘first timers’ in lieu of ‘tried and tested’ recruits. Youth unemployment is hovering around the 1m mark. We reflected on how depressing this was when recent figures suggest that graduates (at least) offer a 500% Return On Investment (ROI) over 3 years – adding over £1Bn of value to the UK economy last year.
On the disclosure that we had previously tried to form an ‘Internships Alliance’, it was inferred that if we wanted to assemble some of the key players in this space, government advisers and representatives from BIS would be happy to invite us in to consider our suggestions. This I see as the ‘Big Society’ in action. I sensed that although the government does not see merit in state intervention, it could see value in working WITH select partners in the public and private sector to INSPIRE and INCENTIVISE (corporate) society at large to effect change (investing in an otherwise ‘lost generation’). It does not want to be seen as a ‘bully pulpit’ but it does perhaps acknowledge that it is best placed to showcase good practice and then ‘spread the word’?
Otherwise, the key issues that we touched on were:
* NETWORKING v NEPOTISM: WEXO doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with using your network to get a job / work experience (it’s a useful skill for the working world) so long as other people are presented with the means to be considered too (and the opportunity goes to the most suitable candidate based on merit). Our technology encourages this by ranking and matching candidates to opportunities.
* SMEs: Many large companies already offer structured work experience and internship programs, but we believe the government should focus on enthusing / incentivising small and medium-sized businesses to take young people on (we have historically suggested recouping costs from VAT hike?). It is these SMEs that represent the backbone of the British economy (60% of GDP?) and which we (and other potential Internships Alliance lobby members) particularly represent. WEXO offers companies a platform to promote opportunities democratically and low maintenance cost, efficient schemes (via STEP and endorsed by Boris Johnson) to pay interns fairly.
* WORK EXPERIENCE V INTERNSHIPS: There is a clear distinction between ‘work experience’ and ‘internships‘ and this is critical in the ‘unpaid’ debate. We encourage companies to offer work experience (unpaid but preferably with expenses covered) for periods of up to 2 weeks. Thereafter (when the value generated exceeds that which is which is earned), we suggest companies offer paid internships for anything up to 3 months. For us, this is more a moral issue than a legal one (Blog here). After 3 months we suggest companies either offer people a job or let them get on with their job search. Otherwise they get stuck in the ‘internship trap’. Although WEXO is clear that work experience, apprenticeships and internships are totally different entities (based on duration, who applies, and remuneration or who derives value), the public at large might not be and so consideration needs to be given to this. Furthermore, we see the need for clarity on interns being entitled to National Minimum Wage, apprentices being entitled to £2.50 an hour and job seekers being allowed to do work experience for up to 2 months on JSA (Job Seekers Allowance).
* CAREERS ADVICE: Against a backdrop of record youth unemployment, a recent Ofsted survey suggested that one in three schools are failing to give good advice to students about future career prospects. A report by Deloitte said that 95% of young people want employers to be more involved in providing guidance about careers citing that they feel ‘bewildered’ and ‘uninformed’ by the career choices on offer. We would encourage government to back inspirational careers guidance to the like of the ‘How I Made It in…’ Events involving executives from the front line of their industries as featured on WEXO tv.
* FUNDING: As per our blog at the time, in the budget, George Osborne committed to investing in 4 times as many 8 week work experience placements as previously for 18-21 year olds. The scheme, administered by Job Centre Plus allows those doing so to collect JSA (Job Searchers Allowance). It’s a reasonably well conceived initiative but it doesn’t address the issue of finding rewarding work experience. “As George pointed out, the problem is that only 1 in 10 companies in the UK offer work experience as opposed to 1 in 4 in Germany. If George wants to see a return on his recent investment he needs to address both sides of the equation”. So funding for this and the £180m ‘Apprenticeships’ packages should address supply of opportunities as well as demand.
3) WHAT CAN BE ACHIEVED?
With the above in mind, WEXO is excited about the prospect of working with the powers-that-be to help educate companies and incentivise them to recruit and invest in young people who are better informed.
* PROBABLE OUTCOME: At the very least, we feel sure that the government will honour its offer to listen to, acknowledge and where possible, address, the consensus suggestions of the key players in this space. We trust that this will not be a repeat of the unfulfilled promises of 3 years ago when we met the Panel for Fair Access to the Professions and offered to help with The Graduate Talent Pool.
* POSSIBLE OUTCOME: Even if say just SMEs (and especially ‘STEM’ [Science, Technology Engineering and Maths] companies – the future?) could recoup the costs of one 3 month internship each from VAT at National Minimum Wage (~£220 a week), it would help them show commitment to the managers of tomorrow? Instead of giving £15m worth of funding directly to the Higher Education Authorities – HEFCE (which was largely left unspent?) – we would suggest that the government ‘atones’ itself for the recent tuition fee hikes (which we actually support) and invests some of the proceeds in subsidies that public-private sector partnerships (including HEFCE) can promote to companies that are desperate to take on young people. Perhaps funding could come from the new £50m ‘Growth and Innovation Fund’? We believe that given the ROI generated by graduates any such initiative would be cost-neutral at worst.
* PREFERRED OUTCOME: WEXO was recently a member of two syndicates that spent a considerable amount of time, money and energy submitting tenders (and being shortlisted) for grants to supply work experience and Internships across London. With the funding then being clawed back from the LDA, the projects were subsequently abandoned. We acknowledge that the government would rather let the market decide who the winners are (and we are happy to operate on this basis) but what IF this government decided that it would like to back responsible corporate and social enterprises (as well as banks) and actually INVEST in the next generation through performance related, service provision grants to the like of the ones discussed above? A little could go a long way to get the motor running and generating decent GDP growth.
My thanks for the opportunity.
Robin Kennedy. Co-Founder, WEXO