Experience is a difficult concept to define. Difficult because it means something different to everyone, difficult because it’s meaning changes depending upon the context in which it is used. It’s very easy to label a person as ‘inexperienced’. It’s a catch-all phrase, it’s easily understood and it’s a compelling narrative, especially when levelled against a young person. It’s also very difficult to oppose – mostly because it’s hard for anyone to understand what experience means until they are in possession of it.
Now try being a young person, about to embark upon your chosen career. How do you go about gaining the relevant experience to take the first step into your career? Rejected at every opportunity, with little or no feedback – other than the fact that you’re lacking in experience of course. Now add in a financial crisis and recession of the gravity the World has witnessed in recent years. Hardly surprising that the rate of youth unemployment has risen to its present level is it? Is it any wonder employers choose to hold on to more experienced staff over young people? There will be few young people, with the benefit of experience of course, that fail to understand this. Here’s the thing that should trouble World Leaders though – most young people are not even close to competing for jobs.
Assuming that a lack of experience is a given in a young person, on what other basis can they compete? In years gone by, they would cost significantly less to a business than an older peer, but the proliferation of the minimum wage across many nations has eroded this advantage. Perhaps young people possess different/more valuable skills that a business values? Competency in ICT, or the ability to speak a foreign language, are highly valued by employers, but education often adopts and teaches technology at a slower pace than industry and in some countries, such as the UK, the teaching of languages at school isn’t even compulsory. Perhaps young people could be more entrepreneurial - a hugely valuable asset to a business. Entrepreneurship education however, is barely a factor at schools and in many countries, there is a complete lack of infrastructure for funding and developing start-ups.
So, how can we give young people a fighting chance? How can we make them more competitive in the job market?
First of all, let’s look at supply-side measures to reduce the cost of a young person to a business. The use of fiscal incentives could make the employment of young people more attractive, without reducing their ability to earn in the process. Abolishing the tax an employer pays on the salary of a young person (under the age of 25) would be a bold step for World Leaders, but the same line of thinking could be taken further. What about introducing a new type of job – a 6 month fixed term contract specifically for young people? The job would carry a living wage and the cost of the entire post would be considered tax deductible. The thinking here, is that a flexible labour market is attractive to most employers and temporary contracts are commonplace. This new type of post would take advantage of that, whilst protecting the rights/pay of young people. Apprenticeships work in certain circumstances, but not for office workers (where the skills gap is less) or graduates (who are typically older when they first come to market – and therefore an apprentice wage would be too little to survive on).
The second area to look at, is how we can develop valuable skills in young people, skills that differentiate them from their more experienced peers. ICT skills are becoming ever more valuable in the workplace in almost every role and as businesses become more and more dependent upon technology, competency in this area will become even more prized. In addition, these skills tend to be lacking in more experienced peers, simply by virtue of the infancy of the discipline. This favours young people greatly, and developing these skills in young people should therefore be a focus for World Leaders. In addition, in an ever more globalised world, language skills are becoming more and more sought after. Equipping young people with the ability to speak two, three or even more languages would instantly make them a more valuable commodity in the job market. A greater proliferation of exchange schemes would help to facilitate this learning further, in addition to broadening the cultural horizons of young people.
Entrepreneurship has long been the most effective driver of social mobility. But it is seldom recognised for its ability to rapidly develop a diverse skill set in entrepreneurs. As an entrepreneur, you have to learn as much as you can in a very short space of time in order to survive and you are suddenly in a position to make strategic decisions, the like of which normally challenge only those at an executive level. Empowering a young person to start their own business is a fantastic way to improve their employability. A team member that thinks and behaves like an entrepreneur is a huge asset to the business, so much so, that they’ve been given a name – intrapreneurs. World Leaders must do more to make entrepreneurship a viable economic option for young people. This must start in schools, where, in many countries, starting a business has long been the option to take when academic success has proved elusive. Establishing an ‘Entrepreneur in Residence’ in every school would be a useful starting point. After that, microfinance schemes that offer seed funding, along with advice and mentoring to young people should be developed, with the recognition that many enterprises started as a result will inevitably fail, but that the investment should be considered an investment in skills development and labour market enhancement, not a direct investment in economic development.
Development of skills, of whatever nature, require the right environment and the right resources. For this reason, it is important that we utilise public spaces for this purpose, so that those that are motivated can achieve, regardless of their means, or their location – those in rural economies must not be left behind of course.
It’s also important to recognise the value to employers of skills and experiences gained through participation of activities not directly connected to the workplace; well-rounded characters that take responsibility for their own personal development are incredibly valuable to employers. Yet engaging in activities outside of education or the workplace can be prohibitively expensive for most. World Leaders should be looking to provide financial support for young people for this purpose, by way of an enabling allowance.
There’s little we can do to help those just entering the job market to gain the experience of a peer 10, even 5 years their senior. However, we must realise that experience is not the only factor employers take into consideration when choosing their preferred candidate. We have to make young people competitive in the job market, so that a lack of experience becomes merely a factor in the decision as to who to employ, rather than the reason to simply throw out the CV without further consideration.
This piece was written during Ian's tenure as Leader of the UK Delegation to the Y20 Summit in 2015. Youth Unemployment was a key topic on the agenda for the Summit. To read more about the role and the topics discussed during the Summit, click here. To view the full article on huffingtonpost.co.uk. click here.