Greater social dialogue could boost youth employment

Youth unemployment has been a persistent issue for the UK economy. The transition of young people into the labour market has taken longer and become more precarious over the last 10 years. A report from Union Learn, the learning and skills organisation of the Trades Union Congress, suggests ways in which the government, unions and employers could tackle the UK’s youth employment crisis. It recommends more national dialogue, particularly on apprenticeship funding, training and incentives.

Youth unemployment report

A report published by Union Learn, the learning and skills organisation of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), has identified a range of ways in which unions and employers could tackle youth unemployment in the UK. The report, ‘Skills for Sustainable Employment: Strategies to Tackle Youth Unemployment’, charts the substantial rise in youth unemployment since the start of the economic crisis within the UK and beyond. It outlines the difficulties young people in the UK face making the transition from education to work, and says that entry into the labour market is taking them longer and is now more difficult than in the five years before the 2008 global financial crisis.

Key findings

The report acknowledges differences between the UK and its European counterparts, suggesting that transposing initiatives from countries such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands is not possible. These countries have responded to the crisis particularly by focusing on apprenticeships and initial vocational education and training, but such a response relies on a strong social partnership model, with mandatory employer funding for training, and clear-cut jointly regulated vocational routes to employment. The UK system has much less union and employer involvement at national level and this presents challenges for employers and young people.

The report makes a number of key recommendations.

  • Overall economic activity needs to be boosted to improve job opportunities for all workers, including young people.
  • A job guarantee should provide employment to all long-term unemployed young people.
  • All young people out of work should get help, rather than only those claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance. This should be done through effective active labour market policies that provide good quality training and work experience.
  • Wage subsidies should incentivise employers to recruit young people.
  • Education and apprenticeship opportunities should be expanded.
  • The complexity of funding arrangements for apprenticeships and vocational training should be reduced.
  • There should be greater emphasis on consultation and engagement with trade unions and employers when changes are made to youth employment policy.

The study found that some trade unions were taking innovative action, particularly on training and apprenticeships. With one employer, one union had negotiated the removal of temporary agency workers and their replacement with apprentices who would be offered permanent employment on successful completion of their training scheme.

The report suggests that such examples of good practice should be shared across the union movement, and local union networks are particularly well placed to do this because of their knowledge of the local labour market and its opportunities.

The report also identifies sectors in which unions have played a valuable role in negotiating better quality apprenticeships, work placements and traineeships for young people – sometimes by partnering with training and apprenticeship providers or by providing these courses and opportunities themselves.

Finally it suggests that extending the current adult minimum wage to all workers, rather than having lower rates for young people, would be an important way to improve the lives of young workers and should be a bargaining priority for the trade union community.

Guidance for employers

Employer responses are rarely considered in debates about youth unemployment, the report says. Employers in this study reported that the complexity of training funding arrangements was frustrating and even large employers needed to work with specialist partners to understand and access funding. This complexity discourages employers’ participation in training schemes.

Lack of consultation when changes are made to funding arrangements was also a major concern for employers, who said it could trigger employer disengagement from training and education programmes. Employers said they wanted to support youth employment initiatives, but found the complexity of funding and lack of consultation significant barriers to their involvement.

The report recommended setting up an agency to provide guidance to employers on the incentives available, on wage rates and managing young people making the transition to work.


Simms, M., Hopkins, B., Gamwell, S. (2013), Skills for sustainable employment: Strategies to tackle youth unemployment, Research Paper 18, Union Learn, London.

Sophie Gamwell, IRRU, University of Warwick

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