Young workers aren’t working

December 07, 2017


By David Armstrong

What to do about young people not in education, training or employment

As a father of three children who will all soon be young adults, the idea that they’ll do nothing productive fills me with fear and dread, but the statistics say that may happen.  The official term is a bit clunky – “NEETS – Not in Education, Employment or Training”.  In England, the figure stands at 12 per cent. For Northern Ireland, one in five of our young people fall into this category. One fifth; twenty per cent.  Whichever way you say it, it’s far too high.  It’s twice as high as the Germans and the Swiss, and far higher than the Republic of Ireland.

From a social point of view this is clearly unacceptable.  There’s the negative impact on young people’s self-esteem; the obvious detrimental impact on health – mental and physical; the clear links with poverty and crime. 

The adverse economic impact is also a crying shame. PwC’s recently-published Young Workers Index <click here to download report> calculates that across OECD countries there’d be a $1.2 trillion prize if we could sort this out (i.e. bringing the individual country NEET figures down to German levels).  The equivalent prize for the UK is £43bn, which is over 2 per cent of the value of the whole economy (GDP), and equivalent to over £7k for each 18-24 year old in the country. 

What a waste and what an opportunity.


So what can be done?  Like many big problems, there’s no quick fix.  But there are things which can make a tangible difference:

Parents – aspire and believe The day I walked my daughter to her first day at primary school another parent said to me, “There’s no way my girl is going to get into grammar school at the end of all this.” She was completely resigned, on day one of formal education, to her daughter not achieving academically.  I was dumbfounded. If that’s what her mother thought, what chance did the little girl stand?  A long-standing colleague of mine, Professor Sonia Blanford – one of the UK’s leading educationalists – recently published a book called “Born to Fail<click here> in which she makes a very compelling case for change in Britain.  Everyone involved – teachers, parents, pupils, business – needs to aspire and believe.  There’s no reason why the vast majority of youngsters shouldn’t leave education or training with something sensible and solid that can stand them in good stead as they get stuck into the labour market.  But they need their parents’ or guardians’ encouragement and support to achieve this.

Teachers – collaborate with others I believe as a society we’ve become complacent.  We’ve begun to accept the unacceptable, and consider our NEETs issue as normal and ‘just the way things are’.  We need to begin tackling it with confidence for the sake of our children. Good schools are open schools.  They’re open to parents, businesses and other civil society organisations who have a legitimate role in the development of our young people.  I think educationalists need to get more comfortable with the principle and practice of collaboration.  If they do, I’m sure it will go a long way to helping them achieve their ultimate goals.  To take one example, there’s solid empirical data to show that the Path’s programme, developed by Barnardo’s in NI, continues to have a strong impact on educational and social outcomes.  We need to encourage others to be more open to collaborating in this way.

The Paths Programme

What is PATHS? <click here for more information>

There is robust research evidence that school-based interventions can help raise future aspirations and have a significant impact on educational and social outcomes. Barnardo’s NI has been working successfully in partnership with schools on these very issues. They offer a range of evidence-based programmes including the PATHS ® programme to promote positive futures. Building ‘softer’ skills such as self-regulation and problem solving during the Primary School years is essential for future employment.

Business – influence and engage.  Business is inextricably linked into the ‘system’ of education and training. We need to take our role in shaping and delivering education and training outcomes more seriously. I’ve been working hard recently with my good friend Sir Stephen O’Brien to develop something along these lines as a pilot.  Stephen is an inspirational guy who founded great organisations like Business in the Community, Teachfirst and Londonfirst.  Our work together is all about trying to articulate the legitimacy of business in relation to social and educational issues, and somehow create a simple vehicle to channel its distinctive contribution.  For now we’re calling the initiative the Second Curve (after Charles Handy’s excellent book “The Second Curve” <click here>).  Watch this space!

The thought that my three children and their peers hit the labour market with a 20 per cent chance of ending up unemployed / NEETs is, for me, wholly unacceptable.  It’s unacceptable for us as a society. Let’s get stuck in together and see if we can make a difference.


Dr David Armstrong is a partner in PwC.  He is on PwC UK’s Government Consulting leadership team and is responsible for PwC’s Strategy& team who work for public sector clients.