COLUMNIST: We need North East job opportunities and a real living wage

Youth employment must be a key priority, says Stephen Lambert.
Youth employment must be a key priority, says Stephen Lambert.

Uunemployment is up in the North East. 71,000 are out of work and 45,000 16 to 24-year olds are classed as NEET – not in education, employment or training – in what has been described as a lost generation.

Youth unemployment is now higher than in 2009 – and the North East is being hit the hardest with the Midlands not far behind.

While the affluent towns of Morpeth and Rothbury have NEET rates for 16 and 17-year olds as low as 1%, comparable rates for disadvantaged towns such as Lynemouth and Amble are 10%.

The implications are serious for hard-pressed businesses, the wider community and public services. Being NEET is often related to youth offending, poor performance at school, mental health, early parenthood and other ‘scarring effects’.

In Newcastle, 67% of NEETS are drawn from that quarter of youngsters known to social services.

However, research carried out by Professor Robin Simmons at Huddersfield University challenges some of the stereotypes about youth joblessness, and offers a range of policy recommendations for decision-makers in Westminister, Whitehall and the North Tyne Combined Authority.

The research project conducted in the North has a number of important findings.

One of these is that, nationally three-quarters of 16 to 18-year olds who are NEET come from households with at least one parent in work, and that normally they are out of work for relatively short periods (on average three months).

Moreover, as Simmons and his colleagues point out, while generally NEET young people have lower than average qualifications, it’s easy to overlook the fact that many jobless university graduates are also officially classified as NEET.

Either way, the research found that most NEET youngsters want to work, although some churn chronically between low-grade courses and poorly-paid, insecure jobs. On the few occasions those taking part in the study found decent, secure employment, they usually stuck with it.

Although some on political right, are quick to label the jobless as a feckless under-class, Simmons’ team found that most NEET teenagers are essentially ordinary working-class kids with mainstream values, attitudes and opinions.

Most wanted a paid job, a decent home and to start a family.

The research drew on a number of conclusions, some of which relate to education and training, which is often not effectively matched to young people’s needs and capabilities.

Yet, they also argue that there’s an urgent need to stimulate demand across the regional economy, and for the labour market to be effectively regulated.

In other words, an industrial strategy, based on inclusive growth, is needed with meaningful targets and realistic deadlines.

Of course, a dose of realism is required here: Long closed mines in ‘forgotten England’ like south east Northumberland and the traditional shipyards on the Tyne and Wear won’t re-open.

But work in the green economy, in housing regeneration, on public infrastructure projects can be created.

In the last four years, Newcastle City Council, in partnership with North Tyneside Council and the business community, has invested heavily in the off-shore oil and gas industries, hospitality and tourism, digital technologies, new housing and ultra-fast broadband.

This is creating much needed jobs, instilling business confidence, and giving2,000 NEETS the meaningful opportunities they require.

The number of jobs has risen to its highest level for at least a decade. It’s set to break through the 20,000 mark, with more Geordies in private sector jobs and more businesses locating or being set up here north of Tyne.

Most fair-minded people in our region believe that the opportunity to have a high quality job should be available to every resident with decent employment rights, providing security, supporting well-being and helping to grow the local economy.

New schemes such as the Life Chances Fund in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods will ensure that all young people get the opportunities they need.

In 2013 to 2016, 12,700 more residents have found paid work. Investment is benefiting young people too. 145 from the city have been supported into jobs by Generation NE in 2017, alongside 85 employed apprentice schemes, with an additional 28 on pre-apprenticeship programmes.

On a national level, a properly funded and effectively managed policy commitment to a job guarantee – a real job for anyone who’s been workless for two years (one year for the under-25s) needs to be affirmed, while a revitalised enterprise allowance scheme to boost self-employment and business start-ups is a must.

The setting up of a devolved combined authority North of Tyne headed up by an elected Mayor as part of the Northern Powerhouse agenda will cast a spotlight on NEETS, skills shortages and adult training.

Regional earnings in some economic sectors are still below the national average in England. But challenging stubborn long-term, above average youth unemployment in ‘struggling’ northern seaside towns like Blyth and ‘forgotten places’ like Ashington’ must be the key priority for the North of Tyne Mayor, working in partnership with private enterprise, the LEP, trades unions, the third sector and local government.

The North of Tyne devolution deal, incorporating Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside, has the potential to create more and better jobs in the North East. Northumberland has also been picked to pilot a new scheme to strengthen the rural economy and tackle hidden rural NEETS who number one in 10!

The NTCA will take oversee the £23million adult education budget which will be used to ensure that people are skilled up, while a North of Tyne Education Improvement Challenge, based on the successful inner-city London model, will be set up to tackle educational under-performance in disadvantaged places like Amble and Cambois.

Above all, the much maligned public sector has a key role to play.

As the North East educationist Patrick Ainley notes in his book, Betraying a Generation, a far-reaching programme to create sustainable jobs is necessary to deliver the employment opportunities needed in the left-behind post-industrial coalfield and coastal communities of the north.

He recommends a policy of public works and health care – restoring homes, engaging in conservation and environmental projects and improving the regional infrastructure would go some way towards bridging the opportunity gap that presently exists.

However, much more needs to be done to give our northern young people a brighter future.

Significant changes in public policy, high skilled employment opportunities and a real living wage, both at a sub-government level and in the broader political economy, are needed to bring about an inclusive North East England.

Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City councillor who contested Berwick in 1987 for the Labour Party.