Opening doors and breaking barriers, or smoke and mirrors

by Hugh Goulbourne

Nick Clegg’s social mobility strategy – Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers has attracted much attention from the media. But are the proposals anything more than just a way of diverting attention from this government’s clumsy budget cuts which have left millions of people, especially those aged 16-25, without access to vital traineeships and work experience opportunities?

The overarching principle set out in Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers is a sound one, namely that “no one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances of their birth” and instead “what ought to count is how hard you work and the skills and talents you possess, not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did”. Indeed it is the very principle that all of us in the Labour party sign up for when we join.

Under New Labour, a series of interventions were made to help target internships and apprenticeships at those from unprivileged backgrounds. Perhaps the most successful of those programmes was the future jobs fund (FJF). The FJF programme provides a grant to charities, social enterprises and local government to offer a paid contract of employment to an individual aged 18 – 24 who has been out of employment for six months – in effect a paid internship.

The experience of the FJF demonstrates the importance of paid internships in opening up vital work experience to those without existing financial support. In West Yorkshire, a consortium of not for profit arts organisations have used the final slice of FJF funding to provide an internship to a local arts graduate, who, despite a good degree and several voluntary positions, has not been able to find the requisite workplace experience to be able to secure full-time employment. All over the country, the programme has been a success, with well over 50% of those who have joined the FJF scheme ceasing to claim job seekers allowance and entering into paid employment seven months after they started the programme.

FJF was axed in April, together with a number of other Labour programmes as part of the government’s spending cuts. It will be replaced by a new code for government internships, a new business compact for fairer, more open internship and work experience programmes and the new work programme.

The first limb of Clegg’s proposals – the reform of government internships and the removal of barriers to internships within the professions and corporate organisations – has already attracted widespread support from those within the Labour party. These are certainly sectors of the economy where significant investment should be directed towards developing a new generation of workers from a range of backgrounds.

Unfortunately, however, it is a policy that ignores the thousands of small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) and social enterprises that operate in many of the new industries (for example digital media, advertising, events, sports, the arts). These are the areas targeted for growth in our economy and are key to the vast majority of our young people if they are to progress into fulfilling and well paid careers. The majority of these organisations are struggling to return a profit and cannot, in the current economic climate, justify the cost that is associated with developing someone without a proven track record in employment.

It is this unemployment valley that the FJF programme had started to bridge, and where the the work programme – the second element of Clegg’s strategy – has thus far failed to set out a plausible alternative. A programme to help unemployed entrepreneurs to set up their own businesses, for example, offers a package of £1,300 over six months (plus potentially a capital loan of up to £1,000), but this is a small proportion of the grants that continue to be offered through the millennium commission’s hugely successful Unltd scheme for social entrepreneurs. And reforming legislation which means that young people will now be able to continue to receive benefits, travel costs and childcare costs whilst on work experience placements is still a long way from the FJF funding and resource which was put in place by the Labour government through Jobcentre Plus. The establishment of work clubs, enterprise clubs and volunteer together programmes to help young people to build their networks and find business mentors cannot substitute for on the job experience in the work place.

It is worth noting that the candidate who we selected for the FJF post was selected because of the work – mostly voluntary – that he had done to network himself within the local community arts scene. The ability to form, maintain and develop networks is certainly a skill which adds value to any business, but these vital connections are not necessarily a result of family, school or “tennis club” networks.

On the contrary, our experience shows that the sort of young people targeted by the social mobility strategy – a young man from a tough part of West Yorkshire and State educated right through to technical college – can form these networks on their own. Networking skills are an important part of an overall strategy for social mobility, but at the core of any strategy must be a programme, such as FJF, which can provide young people with paid work experience and on the job training.

Clegg’s crusade against unpaid internships is to be welcomed. but it is not yet matched by the substance of the policies that he has put in place. Given the current economic climate, the SME or not for profit business sectors cannot – without government support – extend their budgets to pay for more interns. If Clegg is serious about opening doors and breaking down barriers then he must focus less on a discussion around building up or breaking down networks and more on finding the funds to support a work programme that replicates the Labour government’s FJF scheme – a scheme that means that many young people from less privileged backgrounds are now in work.

Hugh Goulbourne is a commercial solicitor and a social entrepreneur.

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One Response to “Opening doors and breaking barriers, or smoke and mirrors”

  1. Oliver Smith says:

    The FJF has helped me and my career in multiple ways; initially just by getting me into a working role which is very important. As most people know it is easier to get a job when you are already in a job!

    Secondly the contacts, experience and opportunities made available to me through working in this scheme has and will benefit me well into the future.

    Without this scheme I would most likely still be struggling to find any kind of job, whereas I am now in a position to apply for jobs in my chosen field, with the relevant experience to back up my application.

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