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It’s time to alter our approach to the modern economy to ensure it works for young people


By Martin McTague, FSB Chairman, Policy and Advocacy

My first foray into employment didn’t end all that well. Like so many teenagers back then, I got a paper round.

For a while I enjoyed it – but the wages weren’t exactly generous, so I organised a strike in protest. I didn’t win this dispute; the newsagent sacked me. When I look back, though, I’m glad I had a glimpse of the world of work at a young age, learning basic skills such as turning up on time and taking care to deliver the right paper. 

Years later, I tried to get my daughter a paper round. The newsagent told me they didn’t bother with that any more. Of course, nowadays fewer papers are sold, as many of us read them online, and if you want to employ someone under 16 you have to fill in permission forms at the local council.

It’s not just paper rounds that have dried up. Fewer people are doing Saturday jobs or summer jobs, as the digital economy has taken away some of the traditional opportunities – especially in shops.

Around half of all young people in the UK now go to university; compulsory work experience has been scrapped and school curricula have become even more academic at the expense of vocational training. The volume of homework may well be another barrier to having a part-time job alongside studying.

I think it’s time to stop and ask ourselves whether we’re getting this completely right. Is it suiting the needs of the economy? Is it suiting young people themselves? Have we become a bit snooty about skills-based learning and on-the-job training?

We need to rebalance. I’m not just talking about skills training for traditional trades, important though they are. Are we properly equipping people with the digital skills needed in this fast-changing economy? Are we harnessing talent in the right way to create a dynamic workforce and entrepreneurial spirit for the future? Are we valuing life skills – the ones you pick up working with other people or dealing with customers?

While there are many good apprenticeships, greater value should be placed upon them and more people encouraged into that route of ‘learning and earning’. My colleague, FSB’s National Chairman Mike Cherry, recently raised the question of whether the ‘earning’ element is enough – £3.70 an hour might be a bit low to entice the next generation of skilled workers. 

Separately, in my work as a Low Pay Commissioner, I’m keen to look at whether it’s time to review the system of having several different age-based minimum wage bands for the under-25s. At the Commission, we’d need to take a range of evidence and views, but perhaps it should be part of the conversation about whether we’re getting things right to develop young talent.

When you mention apprentices these days, half the country probably thinks of Lord Sugar’s TV show. I do wonder whether a 16-year-old Alan Sugar today would do what he did – leave school, buy a van for £50 and sell TV aerials. I suppose these days he’d have flogged wi-fi routers on eBay. Or maybe he’d have felt pressured to go to university, instead.

If I were a schoolboy today, it’s unlikely I’d have the experience of doing a paper round and gaining those basic skills. Although, given what happened, that’s probably a relief for newsagents everywhere.