Lottie Dexter is Director of Million Jobs, a campaign to stand up for the young unemployed. Previously, she was Communications Director at the Centre for Social Justice.
With two Party Conferences down and just one to go, neither the Liberal Democrats nor Labour have offered up any sort of coherent jobs strategy. So next week the onus is on the Conservatives to seize the initiative and give Britain what we need – a game-changing employment plan.
Too many people need a job. That is an undeniable fact.There are around a million young people unemployed, – a figure that hasn’t fallen for four years now – 900,000 people have been actively seeking work for over one year, and almost 500,000 for more than 24 months. Furthermore, figures out this week revealed a drastic rise in the number of women in two-parent families re-entering the workforce.
Driven, most likely, by the rising costs of living and lower household incomes, 200,000 women have gone back to work since 2011, compared with 185,000 between 1996 and 2011. For the same reasons, and in part due to the changes to pensions, older workers are staying in their jobs for longer and more people are coming out of retirement altogether. Not to mention the rise in non-UK nationals taking up jobs – precisely 98,000 over twelve months, which means that competition is fierce.
No doubt these statistics make painful reading for a Government that boasts – on the surface at least – a neat employment record. Overall employment is up, unemployment is down and this Government has an impressive collection of employment policies, as well as reforms to education, training, welfare and enterprise. They are slowly turning the juggernaut around, and employment has returned to pre-recession levels.
But they cannot shy away from the facts. There are groups of people that have suffered an almighty blow from this recession; women, young people, the long-term unemployed and older workers in particular.
In order to win the next election the Conservatives must put flesh on the bones of their jobs plan, and take action for those people in crippling financial pain. Of course they should: the economics stack up, and the effects would be felt by families and communities across the country. A jobs plan to get Britain firing on all cylinders would pay electoral dividends – bringing untapped women and young voters to the polls.
This means empowering employers by making sure no burdensome taxes or red tape block a hiring decision. The Government must get to grips with payroll taxes once and for all. Starting with a clear-cut National Insurance exemption for employers that hire one of the young unemployed, amd ultimately we must phase out NIC completely.
The Chancellor did broach the idea of merging tax and NIC in the 2011 Budget but, worryingly, he seems to have forgotten his good idea. Despite testing the water with an Employment Allowance (effectively an NI break) he needs to be brave and go the whole hog. Getting rid of this jobs tax would lift a huge administrative burden for many businesses, giving them more scope to hire as well as making life simpler for the self-employed. This straightforward policy just makes sense.
But this will only be effective if jobseekers are “workers in waiting” with the right skills, experience and work ethic. The Government must build on its good reforms to training: the number of apprenticeship starts has doubled since 2010, and the new traineeship scheme should act as a fence at the top of a cliff, so the most vulnerable school leavers don’t need an ambulance at the bottom.
But vocational education is still seen as second rate option to university. It sounds dull and is often written off as a loser’s route. It shouldn’t be. Work-focused training programmes are exciting and varied, -for example what better prep for the fast-paced, ever-evolving tech industry is there than an apprenticeship? Not to mention that apprentices earn an average of £100,000 more than other employees over the course of their lifetime. But frustratingly not enough people know, and the message is not put out loud and clear.
The value and vibrancy of apprenticeships must be taught in schools, which must be encouraged to build a network of local employers and on-the-job training. This should be accessed alongside University courses on a UCAS-style platform. Only by equipping our workers with the right skills for the jobs will they compete with workers from the EU, and from across the rest of the world too.
The JobCentres need an overhaul too. Banking on IDS safely completing Universal Credit Jenga, the next bastion of welfare reform is JobCentre Plus (JCP). The JCP should match, mentor and advise jobseekers into work – not administer benefits. They should be innovative organisations that support local businesses, but at present just 17 per cent of small businesses rate JCP as effective or very effective.
The Government must take up the Centre for Social Justice’s proposals to allow the private and voluntary sector to compete for contracts and hand more powers to managers – the people who know the local jobs landscape. Building such schemes as the New Enterprise Allowance and the Start-Up loans scheme, which support benefit claimants and young people to start their own business, JCP should arm any budding entrepreneur with the necessary information and link them into a local start-up hub.
Business start-ups, self-employment and freelancing is the future. The internet has made going solo even easier, and these working arrangements suit modern lifestyles to a T – especially mums, the group that are making waves on the start-up scene. Living-room entrepreneurs must be encouraged and given a greater crutch can be given through Jobcentre Plus.
These policies help all of those who are trapped out of the labour market. They throw a lifeline to the long-term unemployed, point young people in the right direction, push those on the cusp of employment smoothly into work and get more people starting-up. Combined with policies that bring down the spiralling cost of living, these are vital ingredients of the jobs cocktail. This employment plan must be neatly packaged and well promoted, so that those crumbling off the labour market are reassured that help is on its way – and they know how to access it.
We are banking on the Conservatives to do what we need – reach into millions of households across the country and cultivate the right conditions for job creation.