Friday 21 October 2011

A blog for Britain's Unemployed Young - 'generating futures'

A few months ago I got a call from the BBC to originate some ideas for an upcoming series 'Up for Hire', on BBC Three. I don't recognise the DNA of many of my ideas in the show that I witnessed as I sat in the studio audience last night, but it has been a thrill to be involved in a show creating such a buzz and getting such an important topic on the media radar.

The 4 show series, condensed into a single week, tracked the job search fortunes of 4 long-term unemployed young people, 2 graduates and 2 non-graduates. At BBC Centre in London last night, after the show, it was great to speak to Kirsty and Chris, two of the recruits, and see them brimming with the confidence of the kick-start the show has injected into their early careers.

Watching each of the four 'recruits' grow from pretty dreadful first attempts at the 'minimum wage' jobs they did in the fun park on Monday night and gradually, show-by-show, gain traction each night, to ultimately transform into purposeful workers by last night (Thursday 20th October) has truly been a feat to behold. But to meet them in the flesh was to sense their palpable sense of positivity and focus.

They had grown from 4 hapless, clueless youngsters bumbling through the minefield of joblessness, into purposeful adults in what seemed like a 72 hour blinking-of-an-eye over the course of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night's extended 1½ hour show.

These four young people grew tangibly, of that there is no doubt. Yet where I am left is with a feeling of regret, not warmth and optimism. For these young people are four out of an unemployed population of 1 million young people in this country trying to break through. As a nation we really ought to be ashamed of ourselves for getting in such a mess and leaving the next generation of workers in the dole queue before they've even smelt success.

As most family values focus on breathing opportunity for growth, development and, above all security, in the lives of our young, we should as a nation - an extended family - feel remorse for how we are kicking our young people in the teeth as we are in 2011. The unemployment epidemic hitting our young people is destructive and threatens to ruin a whole generation who will take years to absorb the shock wave.

My early career was blighted by the failures of Thatcherism to tackle youth unemployment and I had soul-destroying experiences of YTS (Youth Training Schemes) and YOPs (Youth Opportunity Programmes). These experiences marred my early career and took 10 to 15 years to recover from. We are about to repeat the same mistakes again.

At 32 I crashed into the buffers, having lost another job, having rolled with punches throughout my twenties, I was dumped out of work again in the recession of the early 90s. My previous 15 years I'd often liken to sprinting down a dry grassy slope barely able to keep my feet beneath me. Having left home at 17, it was a constant fight for self-preservation and sanity.

However, I then got my first real career guidance interview with an inspiring Career Guidance Practitioner, who sat me down and helped me dissect, consider and reconstruct my 'career attributes'. The effect was transformational. I clearly had no clue who I was or what I could amount to before the experience and, as the 4 'Up for Hire' recruits I saw grow on TV this week, my life suddenly began to gain traction.

Within 2 years I had studied a year's postgraduate diploma in Career Guidance, survived a Probationary Year as a Careers Adviser, and taken on a Special Needs caseload working in schools and colleges looking after the fledgling career decisions of mainstream students alongside 'the gifted and talented' and learners experiencing emotional and behavioural problems. Their gaining traction instilled an immeasurable job satisfaction within me.

Working with the young people and seeing the results I was achieving with my career decision making method heralded the genesis of my Career Dovetail Formula; based upon my repeated discovery that my clients had little or no self awareness on the one hand, and on the other virtually zero awareness of the kinds of jobs that existed in the labour market. In essence, the laws of probability meant it would be unlikely they would ever fall into the best career path to capitalise their innate career attributes as most people seemed to entrust the bridging of childhood to adulthood to luck rather than fore-planning.

Positively leveraging our intrinsic qualities gives each of us a sense of self-affirmation and meaning to get-on in our lives. Forgive me, but I get really pissed-off when people say it's okay to randomly squander our talents and to allow young people to bump through job-after-job never really discovering a sense of purpose and more often than not, becoming increasingly demoralised.

It's bullshit to say it isn't important to invest in career decision making early. We seem to have got used to living in a world where mucking around and never planning a course towards our future is okay; a world where it is not 'pc' to mention failure. That might have worked in our land of plenty, but let me tell you the party is over - really over - especially for the young people trying to start-out and feed a family today.

A whole new generation of young people are going to starve if they are not tuned-in to the power of their vocational abilities. For the next decade life will be a challenge for anyone who dares leave the education and training system not able to stand up on their own two legs and steer a course towards a well-specified career goal. The days of bling are over - fake sparkle doesn't cut-it anymore - it's the real deal now. The day of judgement has arrived - career judgement. Lay firm foundations, construct solid job structures, build sustainable futures. And repeat.

For too long we have taken accountability away from politicians, educators, parents and young people. Our commercial arena is simply not getting the skills it needs to remain competitive. Organisations are filled with under-performers; a Herculean, tiny minority prop up the rest. Katie Hopkins made some unhelpful inflammatory remarks on 'Up for Hire' as an alleged expert on the subject of higher education. However, had she tempered her melodramatics into greater poignancy - she would not have murdered any hope of a constructive debate - because hidden within her tantrum were some bitter home-truths.

The UK labour market simply cannot absorb 50% of school-leavers going on to achieve a degree - "mickey mouse" - or otherwise. It is true that there are some morbidly indulgent degree pathways that rank alongside the most far-fetched I've ever heard of: a degree in the Vulcan language! Indirectly, it is great that the inimitable Ms Hopkins has catapulted this topic into the media; albeit toxically. But let's bring this debate's temperature down to a simmer and take a more objective look at what is going wrong with youth employment.

'UK Inc', as Prime Minister, John Major, once referred to it, has a finite labour market capacity - in real-time. It is more or less of a fixed size. Year-on-year for the last 3 years this market has shrunk. This is frightening even when it does not take into account the terrifying demographics with our population growing at 500,000 p.a. a shrinking teenage population and a seemingly, ever-growing and bulging population of pensioners in need of a workforce to generate the interest on their investments. To be globally competitive surely we ought to be properly auditing what our labour market has and what our labour market needs?

Teetering on the cliff-edge of an economic disaster, the UK has a grave choice to make. Either we equip our young people with the self awareness, labour market awareness and self-assuredness that a competitive marketplace needs or continue into some kind of national trance; a self-denial zone where the ship is really sinking but we're not capable of accepting reality.

We've led an entire generation up the garden path thinking they don't have to stand on their own two feet to survive (could this be 'welfare syndrome' an unfailing sense of being provided for and never having to do anything to survive?). We've convinced them that it is okay to base our whole ambition on a set of wannabe X-Factor principles where everyone is going to put food on their table by signing badly? Bear in mind the miniscule percentage of successful wannabes, as opposed to the legions of 'auditionees' who go home empty? Yet week-after-week, everyone is glued to their goggle box waiting to get famous. Or know someone famous. To fawn.

The same mentality seems to have hijacked the country's training systems. A combination of union might and political incompetence killed our once illustrious apprenticeship frameworks. As a nation we have not adjusted to the demise of our heavy industries and stepped-up to the demand for future-facing industries. We now copy rather than innovate.

We perpetuate the 'brain-drain' through not empowering REAL TALENT; the kind of talent that authentically contributes to society and generates good will as well as good taxes. Our economy has lapsed into reactivity, and the paradox is that within the space of people lives, still with us today, we've gone from top - and year-after-year - we're slipping further down the league tables. The reality is that unless we (the UK) approach this problem differently, we are on course for Third World status within a lifetime.

As I have written elsewhere, our country's obesity epidemic is just a metaphor for what we're like inside as a nation. We're not dedicating out skills, forgetting how to apply them and have taken our eyes of the prize; only a few of us are genuinely conscientious. It has been too easy during a prolonged period of plenty to get lazy. And out of this lull have come certain degree courses that might as well be millstones around our young people's necks when what they need is some impetus and a lifejacket.

In addition to reaping the backlash from dreadful economic policy, when Gordon Brown was prancing around in his invisible suit, and all the policy-makers and the voters were so intoxicated by the endless stream of cheap money they daren't tell him that he'd torpedoed his own ship, we have started killing-off and demolishing the whole superstructure that helped target the needs of young people and give them a helping-hand in working their future out.

In spite of announcing the launch of an 'All-age' National Careers Service in November 2010, John Hayes has done a U-turn and, having closed the vast majority of the country's careers centres, he has replaced it with a national helpline phone number (he caved-in to Gove). Mindlessly, at just the time the nation needs it most, virtually the whole of the professionally qualified careers profession has been made redundant. When was the last time an entire specialist workforce was put out of work and the media didn't give a hoot?!

The standard retort is that no one ever received helpful guidance from their Careers Adviser. I know this subjective view to parallel bad restaurant reports. A restaurant can give pleasure to 999 customers, but it only takes the 1000th to spread bad reviews and spells disaster. There are some remarkably inspiring Careers Advisers working in this country. And it seems through our period of plenty we have found a way of feeling we just don't need them anymore. We will live to regret it. Or at least our economy will… and then our children… and then their children's children.

Consider what success might look like for a moment:
  • We gear-up our National Careers Service to partner with industry leaders and help them envision what our country needs to construct an economically dynamic labour market.
  • We do the numbers - we properly audit the shortfall in skills and we work to facilitate an education process that produces those skills.
  • Four years ago we were massively oversubscribed by qualifying medical students where supply outstripped demand for their skillsets.
  • Two years ago a Law graduate could not get onto the all-important training year with law firms because all the law firms were shedding staff to keep their firms afloat.
  • Yet few of the universities tempered their approach to offering places and we all sat watching as the water in the ship started to lap at our knees
  • As Draconian as it might sound, we sanity-check all degrees on the basis of the contribution they make to society. And no, this doesn't have to be the death of the Arts!
  • We ensure all young people who embark upon a degree course or apprenticeship understand the destination and job prospects that pathway to the workplace holds for them. They consider their prospects ahead of time.
  • We reinstate Careers Action Plans for school and university leavers to capture each stakeholder's commitment to the chosen career pathway.
  • We start career counselling, competency identification and aptitude assessment earlier in school to enable young people to build upon the momentum derived from known strengths not a never-ending quest.
  • We set-up a national computer database which accurately describes the tapestry of jobs in our economy and interfaces it with labour market supply.
  • We knit our labour market-together to build a congruent, integrated and sustainable system where commercial, economic and labour market demand are in relative alignment.
As Steve Austin's boss said, "We have the technology...." We can rebuild our labour market. But we need some visionary thinkers to takeover the helm of the ship and steer a course to more fruitful waters. As it stands, our problem is that we are welded to convention at a time when we need pioneers to invent new ways of thinking and give them the support they require to turn our ship around. Everyone possesses a real talent for something. Let's help them develop.

As good as 'Up for Hire' was on the BBC this week they missed an opportunity to truly inspire. There was an elephant in the TV studio. Not once did they properly tackle the subject of career planning. Nobody seems to have noticed but me. The 'career guidance' phrase wasn't even uttered; (although this is partly the fault of the career guidance profession for never getting their PR right - but that's another story!)

My final point comes back to the difference that was made on four young people's lives when experts and experienced workers invested a few hours in their development. Each of those youngsters was despondent due to long term unemployment and a lack of any prospects existing on the horizon. The relatively short time it took to turn them on to how exciting their prospects could be, if they only knew, created electricity in each of them and transformed their outlook for the good - and for good.

It is time to catalyse a movement where Government neglect can no longer be a factor in the future of our young people's careers. There is a way of turning this ship around. We need a lobby to turn this ship around and we need it today.

Jamie Oliver famously coined the phrase that our schools are 'nutritionally barren'. Today I want to warn everyone reading and ask that you repeat my words to everyone you know because we are also 'vocationally barren'!!

I am launching The Purpose Foundation to help young people lay the foundations of purpose in their lives and to partner with industry to recover our industrial excellence.

Together we can get the numbers right and tailor education and training systems that not only turn-out well-rounded and well-adapted young people, but in addition we generate unprecedented momentum in our industry with the aim of becoming a truly sustainable economy so that our children's, children's legacy is one worth inheriting.
Not like the one we're leaving them now.
The Purpose Foundation Manifesto
If you are interested in supporting this initiative please sign-up at:
Once we have enough support, we can build something truly inspiring from there!
Please spread the word and help grow a movement.
Duncan Bolam

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