Plus ça Change…? Innovation and Continuity in UK Youth Employment Policy in the Context of the Great Recession and Its Aftermath
In this paper, we first of all provide an overview of the distinguishing features of the UK youth labour market and model of youth employment policy. We then set out to analyse the nature of the UK policy responses to the dramatic increase in youth unemployment in the context and aftermath of the Great Recession. In particular, we analyse a range of recent policy innovations introduced post-2009 in the field of UK youth employment policy, focusing primarily on the fields of active labour market policy (ALMP) and Vocational Education and Training (VET) – and apprenticeships in particular. The target group for these policy innovations has been primarily those aged 16 or over, i.e. young people in post-compulsory education or past the minimum school leaving age. We focus here primarily on policy measures introduced in England: two policy measures in the field of ALMP (the Youth Contract and the Work Programme) and two in the field of VET (the Traineeship programme and the Apprenticeship Trailblazers reforms).
Focusing our analysis on the level of policy output and drawing on Hall (1993) ‘degrees of change’ conceptual framework, we consider the content of these recent policies innovations to assess their relative degree of continuity and change with the UK pre-existing institutional legacies in the field of youth employment policy. Our analysis draws on documentary analysis and primary interview sources with policy makers and social partners, and aims to situate developments in the UK against the comparative backdrop of the wider European context.
In contrast to the prevailing discourse of major public sector and policy reform, our analysis suggest that despite significant incidence of change in the design of policy instruments, the goals and overall model of UK youth employment policy as it is being reconfigured by recent policy initiatives exhibits a striking degree of continuity with the pre-crisis period. In this respect, even in the context of sustained and continued policy reforms, UK youth labour market policy still exhibits the distinctive features of an Anglo-Saxon liberal welfare model, characterised by a strong focus on activation, predominance of work-first approaches and decentralised and/or weak mechanisms of employer coordination.
In the field of ALMPs (e.g. Youth Contract, Work Programme) we observe a continued emphasis on work-first, supply-side policies focused on favouring young people’s early entry into the labour market with an emphasis on ‘employability’ and work experience and early activation, at the expense of demand side policies and with a continued lack of attention towards employment quality and sustainability. This is closely linked to the structure of UK’s youth labour market and school-to-work (STW) transitions where the labour market entry points of young people tend to be in sectors characterised by a high degree of casual, low-skilled and low paid work.
The field of vocational education shows more significant signs of potential structural changes, such as the introduction of the Traineeship programme of pre-vocational training and the phasing-in of the new Apprenticeship Trailblazers. Both of these initiatives are fairly innovative in the UK context as they seek to radically transform the status of vocational education and intervene to change and increase employer involvement in the provision of vocational education. However, we argue that even in this field, the depth of change may not be particularly far-reaching, as both these initiatives are still small scale and there is evidence to suggest continued resistance on the part of employers to assume a more active role as providers rather than consumers of VET.
On the basis of this analysis of recent policy measures, the second part of our paper is dedicated to understanding the sources of continuity in the landscape of UK youth employment policy, even in the face of changes in government partisanship and external macro-economic shocks that may be expected to produce potential far-reaching changes in policy direction. In this respect, we consider a number of institutional and political factors that may explain the observed degree of continuity – such as the continued preferences of UK employers for decentralised or no coordination and low or no involvement in the design and provision of VET; the high level of decentralisation in mechanisms of policy making, which is however not accompanied by effective policy co-ordination at local/regional level; and the strong emphasis on individual responsibility and supply-side push as the guiding philosophy of successive governments’ approach to labour market policy. Even if the UK has a well-established tradition of paying considerable attention to evidence-based policy in the formulation of labour market policy initiatives, our analysis suggests that mechanisms of policy learning are mainly aimed at the fine-tuning of existing policy instruments, and that even more innovative policy initiatives (such as those currently being implemented in the field of VET) encounter structural obstacles due to the path-dependency of pre-existing institutional arrangements, prevailing (neo) liberal market economy and ‘residual’ welfare model.
As a result, our paper questions whether the quest for more innovative policies targeted at young people will prove effective in tackling the UK youth employment challenge, if these structural barriers are not, at least to some extent, addressed concurrently.