Darren Grimes is a commentator, Brexit campaigner & podcaster.
At 15-years-old, a reluctant and painfully shy version of myself walked into a County Durham hair salon and completed my first day of sweeping up hair, making what felt like enough tea to fill the River Tyne, and yapping on with the ‘geet canny’ older ladies that would come into the salon for such a long time that my jaw actually hurt by the end of the shift.
My feet ached. I hadn’t enough money for the bus, so I felt it as I walked home, but at the end of that month when I received my first pay packet, albeit a pittance, I felt great about myself and what I had achieved – my first job!
As the months went by I grew in confidence, in ways unimaginable to me six months previously. School was quite difficult for me, you see, so that little salon tucked away in a village quite possibly transformed my life.
At 19, as I completed an Art Foundation, I supported myself financially through it by working part time in a food store, having completed temporary Christmas work and then being kept on.
Again, that pushed me out of my comfort zone, getting me to know what it was like in the real world and the world of work, with the added benefit of further paid work on my CV.
That’s why I’m troubled by a new report by the Resolution Foundation that reveals that the employment rate of 16-17 year olds has virtually halved over the past two decades – from 48.1 per cent in 1997-99 to 25.4 per cent in 2017-19. Two-thirds of the fall is driven by a declining employment rate among 16-17 year olds studying full time at school or college.
Rising minimum wages could be a factor – and definitely would be if we were to take the advice of the Living Wage Campaign, and pay all young people at adult rates – closing off the possibility of work and experience.
My concern at the fall isn’t just down to the boost in confidence and self-worth for younger people that work provides. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills in a 2015 report documented the very clear benefits of ‘earning and learning’. Those who combine work with full-time education are four to six percentage points less likely to be not in employment, education or training – and earn 12-15 per cent more five years down the line than those just in education. Part-time jobs are also excellent ways for young people to gain experience of the working world – a factor which 66 per cent of employers say is important when recruiting.
The Resolution Foundation points out that the main driver in the decline of younger folk in work is down to a focus on the importance of their studies, no doubt down to a desire to get into a university; the fact that schools and colleges were strongly opposed to their students doing paid work is also a factor.
There has been a 25 per cent fall in the employment rate of 18-19 year olds studying for degrees from the early 2000s peak – a 15 per cent fall among 20-21 year old university students, and a 33 per cent fall among 18-19 year olds studying for non-degree qualifications. This all means getting a first paid job after completing full-time education takes longer than it used to.
Since I started my Saturday job in 2008, the expansion of degrees and graduates has skyrocketed, with the industry booming into an absurdly lucrative cash cow. It’s a short-sighted financially motivated strategy, which is for immediate economic advantage rather than long-term improvements to our workforce and to individuals.
The way in which minimum wages can squeeze pay differentials at the bottom end provides just one reason why it can be especially problematic for certain sets of people to enter the workforce later on, without any form of early paid experience.
Some of these these sets of people — not only those suffering from long-term ill health, but also women who have children — are already more likely, on average, to face difficulties at some point regarding reentering the work force after taking time out, leading to shorter lengths of tenure, which correlates with lower lifetime earnings and fewer opportunities of career progression.
But surely, you might ask, a more educated population should be more employable, right? Except it is a blatant duplicity that is pushed onto today’s young people. Our leaders argue that it is more important to stay in education, to focus on your studies and get a degree, because, if you want a job, you now need a degree. So given the number of graduates our conveyer belt-like university industry is pushing out, the competition in the workforce is growing fierce.
With the decline in Saturday jobs comes the rise of academic credentialism. Since we reached Tony Blair’s symbolic target of 50 per cent of young people in England going to university, we have found ourselves in the utterly bizarre situation where a master’s degree now does precious little to singularise a CV. The number of degrees has now become so great that the degree itself has less impact on employability, ensuring that it becomes less economically valuable.
We should not be encouraging so many young people to take degrees over obtaining other vocational qualifications or experience in the world of work. At present, despite the concern over the burden of debt which students face, we in effect subsidise higher education students in a way which we don’t for apprentices, or those seeking professional qualifications outside universities.
Soon you will need a degree to become a policeman and to have completed class-based or academic courses to get into previously vocational jobs. Social care workers now need to do qualifications – workers that we are desperate for and looking overseas to recruit.
To infantilise a generation of young people and diminish their future prospects in pursuit of making a quick buck through our universities is unforgivable. It’s time to refocus our efforts into non-university alternatives and work experience and be rid of the stigma around them. Viva la Saturday job!