Beware of the Neets

August means summer (until you look out the window), the parliamentary recess, the cricket season. And for many current affairs junkies (and dare we say a political consultant or journalist or two), what is sometimes described as the ‘silly season’ for news.

‘Silly season’ is perhaps unfair, as there’s undoubtedly important news to be reported. And this most certainly includes analysis published in the Financial Times regarding the rising number of so-called ‘Neets’, according to Learning and Work Institute think tank. According to the Institute, which has reviewed Office of National Statistics figures, the percentage of young people not in either employment, education or training for more than a year has risen from 9.8 percent to 11.2 percent in the first quarter of 2017.

These figures do, admittedly, bely the fact the unemployment rates for 16-24 year olds have fallen significantly since the dark days of the financial crisis a decade ago. But, as spokespeople for the Institute note, they reflect a worrying trend that the longer young people are out of work, the harder it is to get them back into employment. And we already have more Neets than other European countries

Brexiteers may tell you that leaving the EU, and the impact on migration that it will bring, will ensure jobs are available for these young people. But this begs two questions. Firstly, will that actually be the case? There are all manner of scenarios in play with Brexit negotiations and, amongst the ideas mooted have been exemptions for valued workers (such as those in the NHS), and seasonal exemptions for jobs that, historically, Britons has perhaps shied away from – fruit picking for example. If those sorts of measures become reality, then the jobs the Brexiteers think might be available will disappear like steam from a kettle.

The second question is, even if these jobs become available, are they the sort that this group of young people will be able to fill? One of the most frequent criticisms business levels at the education system is that young people don’t leave school or higher education job-ready. That is, they don’t come into the workplace with many of the fundamental skills an employer might expect. If Brexit-created vacancies require a level of skills or learning, can we expect young people to fill them – particularly if they’ve been out of employment or education for a prolonged period?

This all poses problems for government. Reducing unemployment has been pushed as one of the great Conservative triumphs (both in coalition and as a majority government) of the last seven years. But that narrative can be somewhat undermined if increases in the number of Neets is not a one quarter phenomenon but a trend. This at a time when the ministers very much need to demonstrate the Party’s credibility, not least on the economy, following a disastrous general election. And if Brexit is to come with a huge divorce bill, the Government can do with every person in employment it possibly can.

The difficulties are also longer term, as the Government needs to consider how it addresses the issue of Neets, which hitherto hasn’t been satisfactorily resolved, but must be if we’re to avoid higher unemployment and consequently greater demands on a stretched welfare state.

See? Not such a silly season after all.