The jobless generation

Sat, May 19, 2012, 01:00

In Ireland and across Europe, youth unemployment has become a social emergency, retarding economies and blighting lives. Job-creation policies are failing. Can anything reverse the trend?

BY NOW IT’S a time-worn routine. Every morning, Aisling scours the internet and finds positions that fit her qualifications. She spends the next hour or two tailoring a CV and covering letter for each application. And then she waits. And waits.

“I’ve applied for well over 100 positions. I’ve only ever received one acknowledgment and one rejection letter,” she says. “It’s appalling. The least a recruiter can do is acknowledge an applicant’s time and effort. I just can’t fathom it. As a human-resources professional, this would never have occurred in the Australian jobseeker market, where I worked before. My philosophy was always to treat every applicant with dignity and respect. That’s not the case here.”

It’s not an isolated experience. For many young people, qualifications, degrees and experience count for little in a distressed economy. About 30 per cent, or 80,000, are out of work; the rate is twice that of the general population. Our youth-unemployment rate isn’t the highest in Europe – that distinction belongs to Greece and Spain, where just over half of young people are jobless – but it is right up there among the five worst-performing countries in the EU.

The extent of the problem is likely to be masked by the number emigrating for work or choosing to stay in further education. In fact, in recent months, the number of young people out of work has fallen slightly; a stagnant economy means there are nowhere near enough jobs to absorb the wave of young people entering the workforce each year.

For many the experience of job-hunting is simply one of repeated rejection. What’s worse is that research shows that those out of work during their 20s are more likely to be permanently scarred, with lower earnings and worse health later in life. It’s little wonder, then, that most policymakers see the issue as little short of a social emergency.

“If you have a growing number of people left behind, there is a cost to society,” says Anne Sonnet, senior economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “You run the risk of a jobless generation disconnected from society.”

And yet, four years into the crisis, most experts grumble that there is little sign of a co-ordinated, coherent or focused policy approach in response to the pressing needs of young jobseekers in Ireland or Europe. Too many training courses are of poor quality or don’t reflect the needs of labour forces.

So what can be done? What is working on the ground? What can we learn from other countries? And, given the straitjacket of the bailout, is there any realistic solution other than emigration and education?

THE SCARS OF long-term unemployment are all too obvious in places such as Coolock in north Dublin. Weeds obscure several large factories with broken windows that once provided work for thousands of employees. Faded signs welcome visitors to company buildings, now hidden behind padlocked gates.

The closure of major employers such as Chivers, Tayto and SR Technics, along with job losses at Cadbury, have jolted the community over recent years. But the collapse of the construction industry has really scarred the area, local people say. As well as experienced tradesmen finding themselves out of work, many school-leavers who planned to do trades or apprenticeships have few options.

“When I look around, I see my friends are all fed up,” says Dean Bradley, who is 21. “I’d hoped to do something like landscaping, but there’s nothing. It really is hard out there.”

The Northside Partnership is trying to reverse the cycle of disillusion and demotivation. One of the courses it runs, PX2, aims to help young people find the confidence to identity their skills and strengths. “It gets you off the couch, makes you feel better about yourself,” says Bradley. “I feel more motivated and want to push myself. You have to create your opportunities by thinking differently. I’ve got a place in Killester College [of Further Education] to study landscape gardening. I’ve learned you’ve just got to keep trying.”

For Matthias Borscheid, the local development and education manager at Northside Partnership, the project, funded by Pobal, is showing very encouraging results. But on its own it’s not enough. “We need different interventions: meaningful training and apprenticeships are important, but there are very few of those around. This isn’t a new problem. We get people through the door the whole time. We can help them in this case to question their negatives and see their potential. But that’s just one part of the story. We need to follow that up. Maybe Solas [which will replace Fás] might provide those opportunities by engaging with employers and providing apprenticeships. We’d love to point people in the direction of more meaningful training.”

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton says she is well aware of the scale of the challenge. One big criticism is that the way we deal with jobseekers is too impersonal. Instead of being assessed on their real skills and talents, people are often shuttled into a one-size-fits-all system that offers limited training and doesn’t link in with other State-funded agencies that could help. Burton says she is leading a sea change in the way her department and its agencies are dealing with people seeking welfare or jobs.

“The new Pathways to Work programme that’s under way is about creating a more integrated service with greater emphasis on one-to-one case management, so we can tailor options and opportunities to suit people’s needs and qualifications,” she says.

This kind of cultural change in the public sector is easier said than done. For example, one small move being planned involves removing the impersonal glass barriers that separate welfare officers and clients, to be replaced by a more welcoming open-plan environment. However, a union representing welfare officers opposes this on grounds of health and safety. Despite these kinds of hurdles, Burton points to achievements such as the JobBridge scheme, which allows a person to work while receiving the dole and a €50 allowance.

While derided by many on social media as a way for employers to access cheap labour, the scheme gives valuable work experience to almost 7,000 people, the Minister says. In fact, about 37 per cent of those went on to get some form of work from their employer once the internship ended after six or nine months.

The scheme is also attracting international attention. The current edition of Forbes magazine gives it a glowing write-up and suggests its model could be replicated elsewhere. Economists also tend to approve of it as it gives motivated people a chance to work in the real world. Ultimately, though, the numbers are relatively small when set against the scale of the problem. With about 80,000 young people out of work, much more ambitious measures will be needed farther down the road.

BRIAN MOONEY, a former president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, has often been invited to advise ministers on how to build a system that would meet the needs of those out of work. He says the toxic legacy of Fás, as well as many of our post-Leaving Cert and vocational-education courses, are not fit for purpose. The result is that many people completing these courses are on a hamster wheel of training that gets them nowhere fast, given that their skills may be of little use.

Mooney says we need individualised assessment and guidance to determine what skills a person has, combined with cutting-edge training that can plug emerging gaps in the labour market. “The critical and most important intervention is the first one: a quality guidance service. We need to determine a person’s skills, not just a degree or qualification.”

He warns that reforms such as the creation of Solas, as well as Burton’s plans, need to be combined with real training and investment. Simply changing the name and putting people from different agencies in the same room will change nothing, he says.

Some potential solutions may lie abroad. In Sweden, government spending on job-training programmes and career counselling means youth unemployment has not grown to the extent it has in many other countries. Studies have shown these “active labour market” policies are among the most effective remedies a government can apply to unemployment, short of creating more jobs.

The apprenticeship system in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands is also receiving a lot of attention. This provides entry into a range of professions and requires people to work.

There is also increasing focus on the notion of a youth-opportunities guarantee, as practised in Finland, where there is guaranteed access to a job or work initiative that matches a person’s skills.

Two years ago, the National Youth Council of Ireland flagged the dangers of not doing enough to tackle these issues in a revealing study, The Forgotten Generation. It detailed in chilling detail the dangers of long-term youth unemployment and how quickly young people can lose faith in themselves. It also included sensible reforms and adoption of some youth-employment models used in other countries.

“Well, things haven’t changed a lot,” says James Doorley, the council’s assistant director. “At a policy level, there are some good things, such as moving towards a system that tries to categorise jobseekers in relation to their needs, rather than treating people the same . . . We’re running out of time. We need to do something ambitious sooner rather than later.”

Audit your skills

The formal educational qualifications you have are important. But your other skills and talents aren’t certified, so make sure you reflect them on your CV.

Sharpen your qualifications

Get a recognised training provider to certify your skills. Then identify training to fill the gap between those skills and the needs of the market. See

Your CV is your first chance to impress

Chances are your CV will get just 10 seconds of attention before it goes either in the bin or on to a shortlist. So make sure it’s concise, formatted clearly and professionally and free of errors.

Think you know what jobs are out there?

Think again. Investigate the reality of today’s labour market in your sectors of interest. Websites such as careersportal.iehave high-quality information and video clips in all sectors of the market where employers are seeking suitably qualified applicants.

Standing still means going backwards

The golden rule is to get out of bed today and do something to improve your chances of getting a job. Do voluntary work, seek an internship under schemes such as JobBridge or consider opportunities abroad. The world reinvents itself every day. So must you. BRIAN MOONEY

Women and work Three under-25s

In the latest Irish Quarterly National Household Survey, most of the 1 per cent annual increase in unemployment was accounted for by women. In the under-25 category, females make up a higher proportion of the unemployed than in other age groups. We spoke to three experiencing recent or current unemployment.

‘I would love to be working. Instead I’m stuck in a poverty trap’

Sarah Gorry, who is 25, would like to work or study but feels the system works against her at every turn. “I’m a single parent with a two-year-old girl. And I just can’t see any realistic pathway to work,” she says.

After travelling and living in Spain, she found work as a sales assistant for the luxury fashion label Fendi at Brown Thomas. Then the recession hit. The brand pulled out and she lost her job. As a single parent, she suddenly felt any options available to her had disappeared.

“I loved the job. I was earning about €1,400 a month. But even if I was still working, it wouldn’t be enough. If I took the cost of childcare out of that salary, I’d be left with just €200. And that’s before I’ve paid my rent or any bills.

“If there was such as thing as affordable childcare, I would love to be back in the workplace, at college or picking up more skills. Instead, I’m stuck in a poverty trap.”

What’s worse, she says, is feeling constantly judged. The Government’s welfare reforms, which will oblige single parents to work once their youngest child reaches the age of seven, are too harsh and don’t take into account the reality of people’s lives, she believes.

In addition, she says, many people tend to view single parents as spongers in search of State benefits.

“There is a stereotype out there that you don’t want to work and would prefer to sit at home all day. You don’t get everything handed to you on a plate. I pay a lot for everything: I pay a large proportion of my rent, I pay my TV licence and bills. There’s very little left . . . Beans on toast is a regular occurrence.”

At the moment she is involved with the lobby group Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids (Spark) to help reverse cuts and introduce a fairer system that will, she hopes, be a more realistic route to work or education.

“My dream is to be back in work. I’d love to work in a florist’s, maybe even own my own florist’s, or study and get more skills and add more things to my CV.”

‘You have to believe in yourself and recognise the skills you have’

Last week Jennifer Judge, who is 19, had her first day of work since leaving school, more than two years ago. “I started in a pharmacy in Balbriggan. A friend had put in a word for me. I’ve been looking for ages, handing out CVs, doing courses and beginning to lose confidence. But I’m delighted to finally get a breakthrough.”

She feels she’s one of the lucky ones.

Many people near her home, in Clonshaugh in north Dublin, started out full of hope and optimism before quickly becoming demoralised by the reality of how difficult it is to find work.

“One of the worst things is that you just don’t hear anything. You go around the shops in town or the big shopping centres. But not a single shop or employer calls you to say thanks for your application. It’s just silence.”

She believes many people her age are harshly judged by other generations, especially older people. “They don’t realise how difficult it can be. No one I know wants to be on the labour. At our age it’s just €100, which doesn’t get you very far.”

Judge benefited greatly from the PX2 course run by the Northside Partnership, aimed at helping young people to identify their skills and strengths. “I found it helped me think differently. You see what you can do and it motivates you. Anything like that is very important.”

‘Being out of work is a confidence killer. Very soon, you doubt your ability’

Hazel Reilly, who is 24, left school just as the downturn hit. It has taken four frustrating years of job-hunting, training, courses and internships, but she finally landed her first full-time post a few weeks ago.

“I spent about seven months working as an intern at the Corner Bakery in Terenure, in Dublin 6, under the JobBridge scheme. And just over a month ago I heard that I was being given a job. I’m thrilled, because I love baking and dealing with customers. At long last I have something to get up for.”

It has been a tough journey. Reilly says she felt utterly demoralised after doing various courses of dubious quality and spending fruitless hours handing out hundreds of CVs.

“Not having work is a confidence-killer,” she says. “It can be very isolating, and very quickly you begin to doubt your own ability.

“There is a view out there that young people are lazy or that we don’t try. But we do. We don’t want to sit on our backsides all day.”

She had hoped to become an English teacher, but she didn’t get enough points in the Leaving Cert. By the time she repeated the exam, a year later, her father had lost his job and she couldn’t afford to go to college in any case.

Often she felt the system didn’t support her. In further education, for example, the courses were often limited and didn’t link in with the kind of skills that employers were looking for.

A turning point came when she saw a bakery internship under the JobBridge scheme, which allows interns to work for between six and nine months and keep their social-welfare payment, along with a €50 allowance.

“I worked 30 to 40 hours a week. I worked when I was sick, when I had no voice and when they were stuck. In the end they told me, ‘You’re brilliant, and we can’t afford to let you go.’ ”

Her advice to other young jobseekers is to persevere. “Just don’t give up, keep going, explore all the options available to you. And if you find the going is tough, think of it as temporary. Just focus on the present, don’t worry about the future.”