Please mind the gap

Why we need a local approach to skills services

By LGA Chair, Councillor David Sparks

When I started working as a careers adviser in Birmingham City Council over 30 years ago, people were getting the local careers advice they needed. Yet since then, careers services have been centralised beyond recognition. Today, the consequences are as clear as they are dire. On careers guidance, many young people have been left with nowhere to turn but their local library.

Billions are being spent on getting young people into work, but the current system is not fit for purpose. Fragmented central government schemes are stopping councils, schools, college and job centres from working together as they should. And the services on offer are designed for adults who have lost their jobs rather than young people looking to get a foot on the career ladder.

The result? By 2020, our country will be short of almost three million highly-skilled workers. We’ve even created an infographics tool to help you see what this skills gap means for your local area.

That’s why skills feature so prominently in our ‘100 Days’ campaign. At its heart, this is an offer to the next government of this country. With devolved powers, community budgets and long-term settlements, local government could get people out of the dole queues and into work. By replacing the over-centralised status-quo with a locally-led careers service, we could reduce youth unemployment by half and long-term unemployment by one-third.

And we in local government have the credentials to back up these lofty claims. Councils have reduced levels of 16–18 year-olds not in employment, education or training to the lowest levels since records began. And in just 18 months, a council-led youth scheme created 14 times more jobs than its national equivalent (105,000 jobs compared to 7,500). Unsurprisingly, the national scheme has subsequently been scrapped.

Recently, we’ve been ‘drilling-down’ into our ‘100 Days’ pledges on skills, zeroing-in on the scourge of long-term youth unemployment. Today, almost 90,000 young people have been out of work for more than two years. Many have lost confidence in the system and — more importantly — in themselves. For these young people, an extra CV-writing course or one more visit to the Job Centre won’t make a blind bit of difference. Unless we act now, tens of thousands of unemployed young people will be left sitting in front of the television for longer and longer, as their chances of an interview get slimmer and slimmer.

That’s why in my speech to the National Children and Adult Services conference, I announced the publication of our Youth Transitions Report, ‘Helping every young person reach their full potential’.

It set out plans to replace Job Centre Plus, the Work Programme and many other initiatives with one locally-led Youth Transitions service getting 14–24 year-olds the local advice they need. We’re also calling for apprenticeships and further education to be devolved to local level. And we’re calling for a locally-led scheme to guarantee a subsidised job for the 220,000 young people out of work for over a year.

The aftermath of the Scottish referendum, with the pledges of ‘devolution max’ to Scotland has given us a window of opportunity to get many of the devolved, local services that people need.

Now, we need councillors, business leaders — including the CBI — and local residents to come together to push the government to make this local approach to careers services a reality. The skills gap is hurting our national economy, local businesses and local residents. Government needs to let councils bridge the skills gap at local level — linking up local employers looking for workers with young people looking for work.

Councillor David Sparks OBE, Chair, Local Government Association