Don't Write Off Young Women at 18

Thursday 15 January 2015

I spoke yesterday at a meeting we had organised in Parliament entitled “Are we training women for jobs that exist” which concerned young women who are, what many call, NEET (not in education, employment or training).  This label is undoubtedly negative: it defines a whole group of young people by what they are not rather than by what they want and who they are.

But it is a label coined and understood in national and local Government and there is clearly cross party interest in reducing the number of young people who are NEET. 

Despite this interest, nothing has impacted on the numbers of young women who have been NEET.  It has remained around half a million for over ten years, on average 130,000 more than the number of young men.

The Rt Hon Nicki Morgan MP, Secretary of State for Education and The Minister for Women and Equalities spoke about encouraging women to do STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and about an investment in a new Careers Company.  Adrian Belton, the Chair of the CITB (Construction Industry Training Board) spoke about encouraging women to join the construction industry workforce but the continuing great challenge of recruitment and retention. Nadine White – a trainee at Young Women’s Trust – spoke about the lack of funding for education if you are “old” like her – 25!

There were interesting questions and evidence of enterprising projects presented by members of the audience but I confess I came away concerned. 

It seems that whenever we raise the issue of young women and their limited and undervalued work opportunities people immediately start talking about school, about careers advice and teachers stereotyping young people.  Yes, undoubtedly much can be done to improve what is offered at school but it will be a very long time, or maybe never, until school has all the answers.  There will always be young people who cannot engage when they are at school.  There will always be young people, probably like many of us, who are not focused on what they want to do when they are 14 or 16 or even 18, but by the time they reach 21 or 24 they want to re-engage with education, they want opportunities for work – particularly work that pays enough to live on.  Many of the young women we have spoken to said that their attitudes and aspirations turned around when they were 20 or 21 or, despite the common rhetoric, when hey had a baby.

At the heart of all this is a crisis of young people’s worklessness.  Almost one million young people are NEET, and the majority of these are young women.  Those with a genuine interest in turning this crisis around need to follow these five simple steps

  1. Recognise that this is a problem and that the solutions for young women are different from those for young men.  A generic approach is not working for young women.
  2. Stop writing off young women when they reach 18 unless they have sufficient academic qualifications to go to university. 
  3. Make apprenticeships available and truly accessible to young women who have no qualifications (not only those who have reached Level 2 or Level 3 at school or college), including those aged 18 and over.
  4. Ensure apprentice pay allows young people to sustain themselves
  5. Ensure young women have genuine skills needed to work in jobs that exist, particularly in their local labour market

The current approach of overemphasising careers advice and career ‘choice’ at 16 is consigning hundreds of thousands of young women to high levels of unemployment or low paid insecure jobs.  We need young women to be able to contribute their skills and talents as so many of them have told us they want to do.  Let us commit now to working together for and with young women and let’s not hold our breath indefinitely until overburdened schools demonstrate yet again that they cannot solve these issues on their own.