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The conversation: when will there be jobs for young people?

More than a million 16-to-25-year-olds are unemployed in the UK. Katie Shaw, who is looking for a job, talks to business leader John Cridland about what can be done

At 2.67million, the UK’s official unemployment figures released this week reached a 17-year-high, though the actual figure could be far higher, and includes more than a million 16-25-year-olds. Katie Shaw, 24, tells John Cridland, director of the Confederation of Business Industry, what it’s like to be young and jobless, while Emine Saner listens in.

Katie Shaw: I graduated in September, after studying fine art and history. I’ve been trying to get a career started, to do with my degree, and I’m interning at a gallery and working part time. I’m essentially being supported by my partner.

John Cridland: That’s not what you expected when you started the degree?

KS: I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I started in 2008, just as everything started crashing, and I went into the degree with a different mindset. It was a wonderful degree, but looking at it with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think I could justify taking it.

JC: The current circumstances could not be more difficult for graduate employment. We don’t know how long it’s going to take to get back to better times.

KS: There are so many people who take part-time jobs to stay afloat, and they don’t get included in these unemployment figures. We’re only in part-time work because we can’t find full-time jobs. The issue for my career is that funding cuts to arts organisations means they are relying more heavily on volunteers and interns to pick up the slack.

JC: Internships are incredibly valuable because there are lots of arts institutions and charities where it’s not a choice between paying and not paying, it’s a choice between someone having the opportunity to get experience or there being no opportunity. At a charity, for example, if those internships had to be paid, they wouldn’t exist. I think you need to keep those opportunities open. In a difficult labour market, research shows the scarring effects are particularly damaging for young people. Unemployment is horrible for anybody, but at the beginning of a career it can hold you back for a long period. So the benefit of internships is in keeping your CV fresh, so when the market turns and employers see you have relevant experience …

KS: I recognise that scarring effect, and I’ve seen a lot of people going through it. There is a lot of frustration for people going into these [work experience] schemes. I know I’m not going to get employed by the people I’m interning with – I’m on a three-month rotation of other interns. You’re essentially working for free, regardless of the experience you gain. Then, it’s divided into people who can afford to be an intern and still pay their rent, or their parents can afford to support them, and people who can’t, and so don’t get that experience. Already you’re getting the rich/poor divide. There are these work placements that are essentially working in Tesco, which I have an issue with. It’s one thing small arts organisations taking on interns and perhaps not behaving the way they should, but it’s different for companies like Tesco, who make millions, and they aren’t paying people. It’s billed as this great “getting people into work” thing, and I have an issue with that.

JC: The companies would say they have more applications for graduate jobs than they can take on. They can fill the job requirements without difficulty. It’s a buyers’ market, and so I don’t see companies exploiting people, I see them saying we will create some work-experience opportunities – which are not jobs being filled by work-experience people. Some of these choices aren’t very enviable, but I think it’s much better that somebody is keeping their skills fresh and has some work experience on a CV.

KS: You can understand that this buyers’ market is open, regardless of the best intentions, to exploitation?

JC: It is. There are always bad apples. Regulation needs to be targeted at people who are abusing the situation.

ES: Does it worry you that a generation of young people can’t get jobs at a time where executive pay is high?

JC: What does worry the CBI is if what business is doing isn’t acceptable to the rest of society – if there is a gap between what happens in the boardroom and what happens on the street. There is a relatively small number of people on these mega salaries that the media like to focus on. I think it’s good news for Britain if we have world-class companies headquartered in the UK. That small minority of really big companies, their CEOs are in a global pool of talent, so if you want to have someone running one of those companies, you are attracting somebody who could work anywhere else in the world, and there is a labour market price. But that’s not the whole of the business community.

ES: Is there not something wrong about Tesco’s chief earning £1.1m [although his total package could be worth £6.9m this year], and advertising unpaid jobs in return for jobseeker’s allowance?

JC: Let’s be clear what the senior management of Tesco are running – a global company. We’re talking about a supermarket that employs half a million people. What do you pay the boss of a business that is responsible for them? You probably pay them rather more than I earn – I employ just under 250 people.

ES: The CBI supports spending cuts, but how do people live if they are volunteering or working as an unpaid intern?

KS: It’s presented as preparing your CV, but people have to pay the rent and eat.

JC: It depends how long it lasts. Sometimes we can cope with difficult circumstances if we can see light at the end of the tunnel. Business will start recruiting if it believes the economy is picking up. I think early 2012 feels a lot better than late 2011. Although the Eurozone crisis is on the news every night, it’s beginning to feel less bad. This week we’ve had bad unemployment news, but we’ve had more encouraging inflation figures, and if it falls such that when we go to the petrol pumps or the supermarket we see we have more money to spend on other things, then business can start to employ more people. Jobs are a consequence of demand in the economy.

ES: Katie, how optimistic do you feel about getting a job?

KS: It will be a case of juggling jobs. I don’t think I will walk into a full-time job, I don’t have any illusion about that.

JC: Government can’t create jobs, only business can. The main responsibility of government is to tackle the deficit and to have a growth strategy, because you can’t achieve growth simply by cutting. Although I don’t think the government can create jobs, it can certainly influence who can get the jobs. The CBI has been very clear that the priority group today are young people. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds