Up to 50,000 16- to 18-year-olds are taking “dead-end” courses that don’t lead into work or further study, and are likely to become “not in education, employment or training” (NEET) by the age of 19, according to a new report from the think tank Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). The report shows that between 2006 and 2010, more than one in five of those studying for a level-two qualification at ages 16 to 18 ends up NEET by the time they are 19 to 20, and nearly one in four doing level-one courses ends up NEET.
“Young people who don’t do well enough at school often end up taking college courses that don’t prepare them for work or further study,” said Kayte Lawton, author of the report. “Many of these courses don’t include enough decent work experience and often fail to lead to a recognised qualification…. We need to see big changes to the way that post-16 education works and we need employers to step up and offer more work experience to young people to help them learn the skills they need to get on in the workplace. We can’t expect schools to do this by themselves.”
But these claims have not been accepted by everyone. Michelle Sutton, president of the Association of Colleges, responded by defending colleges: “It’s not true to describe such courses as ‘dead-end’ because they are often important stepping stones. Some of these young people also need more time to complete their qualifications, often beyond the age of 19, and they should be supported to do so.”
So let’s look at this in more detail.
The first thing to do is to acknowledge that there really is a problem. NEETism — if we can call it that — is a very real issue and the IPPR is right to highlight the problem. There are literally thousands of young people across the country who are neither in work nor in training.
That being said, the NEET problem is not fundamentally one of dead-end courses. The IPPR report acknowledges this when it says on page four: “During the 1980s and 1990s there were big increases in the numbers of young people experiencing depression and anxiety, alongside rises in levels of smoking, drinking and drug-taking. These trends coincided with major changes in family life from the 1970s onwards, including a large rise in family breakdown and a growing number of mothers taking up paid work.” Much of the NEET problem is connected with far more fundamental social-structure issues than dead-end courses, whereby a lack of work ethic and a culture of welfare dependency has been inculcated in thousands of young people, and no revision of college course provision or increase in vocational training is ever going to solve this.
Nor is the problem caused by employers. Kayte Lawton seems to suggest this when commenting that “most young people don’t choose to walk away from work or education, but most employers won’t hire teenagers any more.” This is perhaps turning reality on its head a little. Think about it for a moment. Which employer out there does not want to be successful? And given that they want to succeed and do well, which employers out there wouldn’t jump at the chance to hire skilled and hardworking young people? So if they are not hiring teenagers, as Lawton says, is this really a problem of employer reluctance? If employers were surrounded by teenagers with a good work ethic and a desire to learn the skills which would enable them to do great work, it is almost impossible to imagine why they wouldn’t do so. To state it another way, if employers are reluctant to hire teenagers, does this not simply highlight that there are clearly deeper, more fundamental social-structure issues going on?
Those caveats aside, the IPPR is right to highlight the fact that there are substantial numbers of youngsters who have been in college but who are now NEETs. However, if colleges cannot solve the more fundamental social issues of NEETism, can they at least alleviate some of them? The answer is yes, but the question is — how?
First and foremost, the solution must surely start with colleges seriously asking themselves this question: “Does our course provision serve the local economy and the learners that come into our college effectively?” This is a big question, so how do you answer it? How do you measure whether your college is putting on dead-end courses? Even more fundamentally, what is a dead-end course?
A dead-end course is simply something that will not get a learner into an occupation at the end of it. There are two ways this might happen: one way is if the course itself is substandard; the other is if the course is training people for jobs which simply don’t exist. The first of these failures is an internal college problem which can be solved by raising standards. But what about the second issue, where a college is training people for jobs that aren’t there? This is perhaps the area where colleges are often failing. A college might well assume that if the standard of their courses is high, then they could not possibly be accused of putting on dead-end courses. Not so. You simply cannot judge this question by examining solely the quality of the courses themselves.
Look at it like this: if a college is churning out 100 carpenters every year, but there is a demand for only 20 per year in the region, then– unless the situation unexpectedly changes or people move to areas where carpenters are in high demand — 80 people every year within that area are going on a dead-end course. It doesn’t matter how good the course is or how good the teaching is. If it fails to match up with the demands of the local labour market for carpenters, it is by very definition a dead-end course.
So if looking at the quality of course provision isn’t an accurate way to determine whether a college is putting on dead-end courses, what is? The most effective method is to look at a college’s course provision, then to look at what is going on in the local labour market, and finally to see whether the two tally. This is where Labour Market Information (LMI) comes into play.
Once again let me add a caveat. LMI can no more answer the modern phenomenon of NEETs than colleges can. It is, however, part of a solution. Good LMI will inform a college of the needs of the local employment market. Good LMI will tell a college what curriculum they must provide to ensure they are supplying local employers with the skilled workers they need. Good LMI will make both colleges and learners aware of which courses — no matter how good they may be — are in fact dead-end courses.
Let’s just look at an example of this in action. The following table shows the five occupations in Kent where demand is expected to decline the most over the next few years:
|Description||2012 Jobs||2016 Jobs||Change||% Change|
|Source: EMSI Covered Employment - 2013.1|
|Sales and retail assistants||32,823||32,402||-421||-1%|
|Heavy goods vehicle drivers||7,549||7,243||-306||-4%|
|Electricians, electrical fitters||3,305||3,068||-237||-7%|
|General office assistants/clerks||15,367||15,152||-215||-1%|
|Accounts and wages clerks, book-keepers, other financial clerks||11,650||11,442||-208||-2%|
As you can see, the data is telling us that over the next three years, the number of people employed in these occupations is expected to fall quite significantly. Some, but not all, of these occupations will have applicable courses at local colleges. Take electricians, for example. From the latest actual figures in 2012 to a projection up to 2016, the numbers employed as electricians or electrical fitters is expected to drop by 237. So if a college in Kent continued to send out hundreds of qualified electricians into the workforce, would it really matter how good the courses were or how well-trained those electricians were? Not really. That college would essentially be putting on a dead-end course and quite possibly helping to create yet more NEETs to add to the already swelling numbers.
It is therefore essential that colleges have access to this kind of data. It is also essential that learners have access to the kind of information that tells them whether the course they are contemplating is likely to get them a job at the end of it. The good news is that EMSI’s Analyst takes care of the first part and EMSI’s Career Coach takes care of the second. These tools are by no means the entire solution, but — if you will pardon the pun — they are at least a neat part of the solution to a growing problem.
Data for this post comes from Analyst, our web-based labour market data tool. For more information about EMSI data, please contact Andy Durman (firstname.lastname@example.org). You can also find us on Twitter and Facebook.