Four years can be a long time. Life in Ireland has changed for us all since the Celtic Tiger was declared dead four years ago. For some more than others. Many of the young people seeking work now have finished their second level education or completed a degree in this time, only to emerge into a labour market vastly different to that which existed when they entered education or training. Almost a third of Irish 18 to 25 year olds are now out of work, according to figures from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency. The time has come for concerted government action to help young people find work and to avoid further problems in the coming four years.

Live register figures mask harsh reality

One could be forgiven for thinking that, on the face of it, things are getting a little better. The CSO reports that in the year to July 2012, the number of persons aged under 25 on the Live Register decreased by 8,621 (-9.7 percent) and that annual decreases in persons aged under 25 have occurred in all months since July 2010. The percentage of persons aged under 25 on the Live Register stands at 17.5 percent for July 2012, down from 19.0 percent in July 2011 and 20.3 percent in July 2010.

However, the live register figures hide the harsh reality faced by young people seeking to enter the world of work today. Far from showing an improvement in conditions in Ireland, these figures merely indicate that more young people are staying in education, and more again are moving abroad due to a lack of opportunities at home. Recent information from the Department of Social Protection also indicates a rise in the numbers of young people who are long term unemployed (12 months or more) with the number at over 26,000 as of June 2012.

Safety valve of emigration
There is a suspicion that in some ways successive governments have viewed emigration as a useful ‘safety valve’. Emigration saves money as there is less pressure on the social welfare system and it reduces the chance of social and economic unrest. The CSO figures show that over 90,000 young people under 25 have left in the three years from 2009 to 2011.

Gaining experience
As well as facing a dispiriting lack of options, those emerging from education and training now face competition with jobseekers with more experience. Young people face a “double whammy” during a recession because entry-level jobs tend to be cut first, depriving them of the experience they need in order to compete for higher positions.

If a young person’s first experience of the labour market is collecting the dole, this will have negative consequences for their confidence and their future prospects of gaining employment. The young unemployed people consulted in the research for NYCI’s report “Youth Unemployment in Ireland: the Forgotten Generation” described their experience of unemployment as one which is accompanied by low self-esteem and low morale, feelings of hopelessness, despair and lack of choice, and in some cases admissions or instances of depression and stress. Over time this can lead to demoralisation where young jobseekers without work experience all but give up hope of getting back to work.

Temporary trap?
Even those fortunate enough to gain employment of some kind are having difficulties. The International Labour Organisation’s Employment Trends Unit reported recently that countries affected by the crisis have seen rapid increases in temporary employment since 2008 – up to 13 percentage points in the case of Ireland. This means that younger people run the risk of continuously being employed on temporary contracts with less potential for their career prospects and lower wage levels.

Existing initiatives

There are a number of initiatives operated by the Government which aim to combat youth unemployment including the Back to Education Allowance, Springboard, Labour Market Activation Fund, JobBridge: the national internship scheme, and work placement schemes. Whilst any initiative which aims to create employment for young people is to be welcomed, the existing schemes simply do not meet the volume of demand for opportunities to work or take up training.It is imperative that it is recognised that much more needs to be done.

Youth Guarantee scheme
We welcome the Pathways to Work strategy, the establishment of the National Employment and Entitlement Service and indeed the reform of further education under the new agency SOLAS. These are all necessary institutional changes. However, we believe they will take time and do little in the short term to assist young jobseekers. What is required is an enhancement of the quality of employment supports and advice and an increase in the number of education and training places. In addition,the National Youth Council of Ireland have called for the introduction of a ‘Youth Guarantee’ scheme whereby any young person unemployed for six months or more would be guaranteed an opportunity of some kind, be it a place in education and training, work experience or a job.

Although this would require significant investment, such schemes already operate in seven EU member states and, with the necessary political will, could make a significant contribution here. The International Labour Organisation has conducted reviews of job guarantees schemes in Finland and Sweden and the outcomes are very promising.  Discussions taking place now on the next round of EU funding for 2014 to 2020 for example, present an opportunity for Government to push for funding to be directed towards concrete measures to alleviate youth unemployment.

Four years is a long time. For young people living in Ireland much has changed, and not always for the better. With the number of long term unemployed growing, the cohort staying in education increasing and the numbers emigrating rising, action needs to be taken now to make sure the next four years bring more opportunities and positive outcomes for Ireland’s young people.

James Doorleyis Deputy Director at the National Youth Council of Ireland.