Generation Paused: How the Government plans to tackle youth unemployment in Covid generation

The Government plans to reduce the rate of youth unemployment from 44% now to 12.5% by 2023. How will they do it, Nicole Glennon asks
Generation Paused: How the Government plans to tackle youth unemployment in Covid generation

Nicole Glennon aks Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris and Minister for Employment Leo Varadkar how they plan to tackle youth unemployment 

The issue of youth unemployment is high on the Government’s post-pandemic agenda, with a range of grants, training incentives, extra places and new schemes announced with the aim of ensuring those currently out of work don’t become long-term unemployed.

“We know from experiences of previous recessions that the longer somebody is out of work, the longer somebody is drawing welfare payments, the less likely they are to get back into work,” says Tánaiste and Minister for Employment Leo Varadkar.

“We need to make sure people don’t fall into that trap.” 

Unquestionably, the older generations have suffered the health impacts of the pandemic more harshly, but it is the youth who have borne the brunt of the economic impact with the rate of youth unemployment estimated to stand at around 44% currently.

The Government plans to reduce this to 12.5% by 2023. The Tánaiste is confident this is an achievable goal.

“What we know from most recoveries is that young people are among the first to get their jobs back or find new employment.

“Younger people are more employable and more adaptable. That would give me a lot of hope that we can turn this around very quickly.”

Despite dozens of the State’s top retailers permanently closing up storefronts during the past year and a half, and the Restaurants Association of Ireland’s claims that half of restaurants face permanent closure, Mr Varadkar believes the vast majority of young people currently claiming the pandemic unemployment payment will resume their old jobs shortly or find alternative employment.

However, he acknowledges there is a concern about those that do not regain employment who could fall into the trap of long-term unemployment.

The state of play

  • Close to 20,000 people under the age of 25 are on the Live Register, representing 11.4% of the overall figure (June 2021 figures) 
  • The unemployment rate for those under 25 (including those still claiming the PUP) is 44.2% (June 2021 figures)
  • Over 58,000 people under 25 are still claiming the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (June 2021 figures)
  • The proportion of people under 25 years who are not in education, employment or training was 12% last year. This correlates to some 76,000 people under 25.
  • The apprenticeship population is 20,221 (April 2021) 
  • There are currently 377 learners under the age of 25 enrolled in the Vocational Training and Opportunities Scheme (VTOS)
  • YESS - Since the scheme's inception in October 2018, less than 1,000 people have commenced a placement, there are currently 50 participants on the scheme. It will now be replaced with the Work Placement Experience Programme

'There are a lot of opportunities out there'

The Government’s plan for reaching those people is contained in the Pathways to Work’ strategy which follows a model that was successful in the last employment crisis, says Mr Varadkar.

The plan commits to an “intense” focus on engagement with young job seekers through Intreo [the public employment service] and contracted services which the Tánaiste says is to ensure “nobody is told the only option you have is to draw down welfare payments.

Everyone will have the opportunity of education, training or a work experience program to help them re-enter the workforce, he claims, and under the Government’s plan, people who are unemployed for a set period of time, “be that weeks or months”, will have individual engagement with an individual case officer.

“That might be somebody working in Intreo or it might be somebody from Jobpath or it might be somebody working from the local employment service”, he says, and that people will be made aware of all of their options in education, apprenticeships, training and work experience.

Leo Varadkar says young jobseekers are more employable and more adaptable.
Leo Varadkar says young jobseekers are more employable and more adaptable.

“There are a lot of opportunities there. We just need to make sure that we link the opportunities with the people.”

Where there is a gap between the skills and qualifications an unemployed person has and the skills required to gain employment, the Government will endeavour to re-skill young jobseekers to fill those gaps, he says.

Does that mean the Government would encourage young people who are highly skilled in a particular area but can’t find work in that sector to re-train?

“That’s a difficult question to answer. It’s easily misunderstood or misrepresented that you’re telling somebody who is a musician to go off and train to be a tech worker or you’re telling a pilot to go off and re-train to be a teacher [when you talk about re-skilling].

“But, if we’ve learnt anything from the two or three recessions that most of us have now experienced in our lifetimes, it’s always useful to have more than one skill or more than one qualification.”

Inevitably, most of us will see another recession in our lifetime, Mr Varadkar said: “Perhaps when there are recessions it is a good opportunity to develop new skills and get new qualifications.

“The Government is here to help you do that, but I’d hate that to be ever perceived as telling people your sector is now gone and you can never work there again. That’s not what I think and that’s not what I am saying,” he says.

Unfortunately, however, there are sectors that have been decimated by the pandemic, many of which had a large cohort of younger workers such as hospitality and retail, says Solas chief executive Andrew Brownlee. The State agency is tasked with building up the country’s Further Education and Training sector.

Andrew Brownlee, CEO of Solas says re-skilling is going to be an important element 
Andrew Brownlee, CEO of Solas says re-skilling is going to be an important element 

Mr Brownlee also anticipates these sectors, such as retail and hospitality sectors, are likely to see “big structural change” as a result.

“There is going to be permanent and long-lasting [change] and re-skilling is going to be so important to how we respond and how we help young people get back on track.”

Changing people’s perception of re-skilling is something that will be key to tackling unemployment, he says.

“There’s this established idea that if you’re going to go into education and going to go to college, you do it when you’re 17 and it’s not really something to think about when you’re 21 or 23 or 25.

“The days of doing a block of education, when you’re aged 17 to 21, and having that serve you for the rest of your career or get you a job for life, those days are long gone.”

“What we need to try to get to is a place where people continually upskill and re-skill and move into different occupations and different sectors.

“The way the future world of work is going, if you don’t do that, the skills that you develop are very quickly going to become redundant with technology, AI, the green agenda... it’s going to require continual upskilling and re-skilling.”

The plan

  • Increased benefits for employers under the JobsPlus scheme including a subsidy of €7,500 when hiring a young person (under 30) who has been unemployed for four months. A higher subsidy of €10,000 is paid for recruitment of a person who was long term unemployed (over 12 months). Some 8,000 places will be made available for young jobseekers throughout 2021 under the scheme while the age limit of participation has been increased from 25 to 30 years.
  • A new Work Placement Experience Programme will replace the existing Youth Employment Support Scheme (YESS). 10,000 paid ‘quality’ work placements will be made available by the end of next year, 4,000 of which will be reserved for young people. Participants on the scheme will be paid €306 per week with additional amounts payable in respect of dependent adults / children.
  • A €114m investment in the SOLAS Green Skills Action Programme which will help workers develop the skills required for a low-carbon economy.
  • A new Action Plan for Apprenticeship (2021-2025) aims to grow new apprentice registration to 10,000 per annum by 2025, with new targets for the public sector and increased benefits for taking on apprentices who are underrepresented in certain areas 
  • An additional 50,000 education and training places will be made available in the form of apprenticeships, traineeships and post-leaving cert courses (PLCs), with 1,000 places ring-fenced on Community Employment and Tús schemes 
  • The capacity of Intreo Centres will be expanded to provide employment services and supports with the assignment of an additional 100 Job Coaches 
  • Recruitment subsidies of between €7,500 and €10,000 for employers who take people off the live register 
  • A €1,000 Training Support Grant for jobseekers to avail of short-term, accredited training programmes

Taking the initiative

One initiative the Government is backing as part of the push to curb the youth unemployment crisis is Solas’ Skills to Compete initiative.

The initiative, which is directly targeted at people who don’t regain their old job post-pandemic, is made-up of a number of strands including transversal and digital skills development.

The third element will be giving people access to Level 4 to 6 courses which directly target growth sectors and occupations including the tech industry, pharmaceuticals, green skills, and construction, Mr Brownlee says.

“Essentially what we’re trying to do is give those people who are going to lose their job as a result of Covid-19, a pathway back into sustainable work,” he says.

Another tool in the Government’s arsenal is The Action Plan for Apprenticeship (2021-2025).

The plan, which falls under the remit of Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, aims to increase new apprentice registrations to 10,000 per annum by 2025.

Since the Fine Gael TD left the health portfolio, he has been beating the drum when it comes to the benefits of apprenticeships, and has not shied away from criticising the nation’s perception of them.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris says our CAO obsession discourages apprenticeships.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris says our CAO obsession discourages apprenticeships.

There is a “snobby” attitude to apprenticeships in this country, he says, something that needs to go: “It’s all third level.”

To truly succeed in his goals, a cultural change needs to take place, Mir Harris admits, and he knows this won’t happen overnight.

“[But] I do think one of the ways you change that is by changing the application process.”

Therefore, the minister is working on a plan to either replace or supplement the CAO with a new form which will show students “all of their options” including further education and apprenticeships.

The CAO form only shows you some of your options,” he says, “but because that’s the only show in town in terms of the only discussion people are having in schools and around dinner tables, it narrows the options of young people way, way too early.”

Mr Harris also believes in the idea of “if I see it, I can be it,” particularly when it comes to recruiting female apprentices.

In 2015, there were only 23 female registered apprentices. In February, the nation passed a milestone when Co. Tipperary woman Zoe Fitzgerald became the 1,000th.

But while the popularity of apprenticeships among women is increasing, it’s still “a drop in the ocean“ compared to male participation, he says.

In an effort to tackle this, the Government has introduced a number of incentives for employers who hire women and other under-represented sections of the population. For example, an employer bursary of €2,667 is available to eligible employers who register female apprentices in a craft apprenticeship.

The Government has also set a new target for the public sector to take on 750 apprentices per year by 2025. The public sector takes in about 100 apprentices a year.

“I think it’s utterly unacceptable how few apprentices are taken on in the public sector,” Mr Harris says.

“And I think if the mums and dads of Ireland saw my son or daughter can get a good training and a good job in the public sector through apprenticeship, I think that would help.”

Open for business

Mr Harris is also eager to emphasise the State is open for business in terms of creating new apprenticeship programs and says that he is calling on industry to “step forward and say, I think the apprenticeship route could work well for us.”

Contrary to ideas of apprenticeships being restricted to construction and trade work, there are now apprenticeships in insurance, accounting, software development and the green economy where there is a huge skills gap, he adds.

“If I was advising any young person today, I think the green economy and digitalisation are the areas where there’s significant potential for jobs growth and good, solid, decent well-paid jobs.”

Mr Harris, who at 34 years of age is the youngest minister at the Cabinet table, said the message he wants to get out to younger people is not to let anyone “narrow down your lens”.

No matter who you are, what your background is, where you’re at in life, there are so many opportunities out there to avail of; training and education, be it further be it higher, be it full time be it part-time.

“As a country, we have put massive massive support into trying to get through the Covid pandemic... we are now announcing on an almost weekly basis new initiatives, extra supports, more places.”

The minister for further and higher education acknowledges that it’s a nervous time for young people who have had a “really tough time” throughout the pandemic, “but it is also a time of opportunity.”

There are lots of areas where there are skills’ shortages and jobs to be filled, he says.

“We’ve very well educated young people in this country, we’ve amongst the best educated young people across the European Union.”

The challenge is to help young people secure jobs in the areas that need workers, and it’s about securing ”well-paid, secure employment” because while creating jobs and employment is important, the Government should be “more ambitious".

“I think one of the lessons of Covid, and that hackneyed phrase ‘build back better’ but genuinely, as we try to learn something from the pandemic and make sure there’s some dividend for the public, it has to be well paid, secure, decent jobs with decent terms and conditions.

“Success here isn’t just creating a load of low-paid jobs to get people off the Live Register," he says.

"It's about quality of life."

“I think we’re doing some things well in this country on that, we’ve other big bodies of work to do.”

The Tánaiste concurs, citing a number of issues, such as sick pay legislation, auto enrolment in pension schemes and moving towards a living wage, which he claims will all improve working conditions for younger people entering or re-entering the workforce in the coming years.

“But one thing I always say to people is the most important workers' right is the right to work.

“In some European countries, such as France and Italy, It’s “almost impossible” for young people to get into the workforce due to complicated and strict labour laws," the Tánaiste claims.

“If you go too far too fast, with some of these reforms, it might actually result in there being less employment.”

And in those scenarios, young people will be the most likely lose out, he says.

“The over-riding strategy has to be around economic growth and job creation. If we can get the economy growing again, and all sectors of the economy growing, there will be opportunities there.”

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