According to the most recent figures, one in five young people in Northern Ireland are unemployed. Though those drawing the dole did fall slightly over the past year, Northern Ireland retains the highest levels of unemployment in this age-group compared to other regions in the UK.
Graduates are leaving education to incredibly bleak prospects, prospects that could not have been more different for their grandparents’ generation who could pretty much walk into a job on leaving university, easily securing a mortgage and enjoying a level of financial security that is mostly unheard of today when the whole concept of a ‘job for life’ has become obsolete.
Part of the issue is that more and more students are completing degrees so that it is no longer a reliable index of intelligence or employability and young people must go that extra mile to make their CVs impressive - whether that entails completing postgraduate work in their chosen field, volunteering, completing internships with relevant companies for absolutely no pay or resigning themselves to low-skilled jobs that make absolutely no use of those debt-incurring years of university education. It has become such a specialised and over-qualified world that you will soon no longer be able to work on the till at a supermarket without having first completed a doctorate on the subject. People with strings of degrees are finding themselves waiting on tables and questioning what it was they worked so hard for at university only to realise someone else has made off with their piece of the pie.
On the one hand it is of course excellent that more and more of us are given the opportunity to study a subject at degree-level, but increasingly and because of a lack of emphasis on vocational skills, this means too many over qualified young people and not enough jobs.
Graduates are completing courses to find that their degrees count for very little in the world of work and find themselves in that Catch 22 bind: they need experience in their chosen field to get a job but cannot acquire such experience without an employer taking them on first and hence the unhelpful cycle. It is only those who can afford to be supported by well-off parents while they complete unpaid internships in professions like law or journalism who will be able to climb that ladder to career success.
Graduates who have worked hard in their subject are having to accept jobs that are unsuited to their skill set or face the struggle of making ends meet on the pittance that is welfare.
Add to this the horrid vitriol society foists upon those who are out of work, characterising them as feckless, lazy or scroungers leeching on the benevolence of the state and you have scarring effects including mental ill-health, reduced life chances and life-long lower pay.
As we approach election time, our political representatives would do well to connect with this age bracket who find themselves drawing the dole despite years of education and academic achievement. We need to see ever more job creation, more apprenticeships, more paid internships across the professions and renewed respect for vocational jobs and skills. An alarming number of young people here are facing jobless futures.
We cannot afford to continue letting the next generation down in this way and Government must act to harness the skills of so many before they are forced to go elsewhere in search of a meaningful career.