Time to help the young jobless towards a bright brand new day

Ruairi O'Kane of Opportunity Youth.
Ruairi O'Kane of Opportunity Youth.

The acclaimed songwriter Phil Coulter is to pen a new song about the town he loved so well to coincide with the City of Culture celebrations.

Derry’s unemployed young people of today risk becoming the long-term unemployed of the future, warns RUAIRI O’KANE of Opportunity Youth. He says they’re not a ‘lost’ generation - just neglected and forgotten about - and should get their chance to shine.

The acclaimed songwriter Phil Coulter is to pen a new song about the town he loved so well to coincide with the City of Culture celebrations.

Coulter resisted calls to write a new verse to his classic tribute to his home city, instead opting for a fresh composition reflecting positive changes over the years.

There is no doubt the Maiden City has undergone a remarkable transformation since the scenes of the early Seventies, captured memorably in Coulter’s verses.

However, there are many ‘men on the dole’ and indeed women who do not share in the optimism of modern-day Derry.

Figures released by the Northern Ireland Assembly revealed there are more than 2,000 young people claiming unemployment-related benefits in Derry – higher than any other of the North’s Westminster constituencies.

A total of 2,145 young people aged between 16 and 25 are out of work, according to the Finance Minister Sammy Wilson.

Derry’s jobless figures for this age bracket represent almost 10 per cent of the entire Northern Ireland total - and young people in the North-West are twice as likely to be unemployed as their counterparts elsewhere in the region.

Unemployment has been a historic problem in a city that has suffered more than most from a chronic lack of investment, in addition to a substandard rail and road infrastructure.

However, Derry has always prided itself as city of opportunity, a city of youth and a city of skilled workers.

During the summer, furniture store DFS announced that more than 2,000 people had applied for 14 posts in their outlet in the Crescent Link Retail Park.

This proves a point made by Derry’s MP Mark Durkan, who has said frequently the issue is not a lack of work ethic but a lack of work.

Unfortunately the consequences of the global economic downturn mean there are more young people leaving schools, training colleges and universities with qualifications but few employment prospects.

As a result, our most vulnerable and hard to reach young people are getting pushed further away from the job market.

The Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry recently announced a new £31m Youth Employment Scheme designed to provide work placements and opportunities for young people.

However, this programme is aimed at those young people regarded as ‘job ready’.

Moreover, there are significant concerns in the community and voluntary sector about the new employment programme Steps 2 Success. For its outcome-related funding model lends itself towards ‘creaming’ – finding positions for those at the higher end of the skills scale and parking or ignoring those presenting with significant barriers to employment.

Minister Farry points towards his strategy directed at those categorised as ‘Not in Employment, Education or Training’ as government’s efforts at addressing those most hard to reach.

Business consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers reckon the loss of productivity directly related to youth unemployment costs £10 million a day across the UK, while paying jobseeker’s allowance to young people under 24 categorised as NEET is now £20 million a week.

Northern Ireland’s growing NEET group costs the local economy close to £5 million a week. This figure will continue to rise as youth unemployment keeps growing. However, if ways can be found to help those in the NEET category into work, we could save a quarter of a billion pounds each year in lost productivity.

That’s not going to be easy. Many of those young people who find themselves in these most unfortunate circumstances are already have poor literacy and numeracy skills and lead chaotic lifestyles, suffering from alcohol and substance misuse. They’re likely to have come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Talk of a lost generation is rife but the reality is that these young people in Derry are not lost because we know exactly where they are – in our deprived neighbourhoods, on our streets and in our homes.

They are not lost but forgotten and ignored and the danger is that the young unemployed of today are the long-term unemployed of the future.

But our young people should be classed ‘opportunity youth’ because of the untapped potential they offer. They have the potential to infuse our economy with skills, leadership, energy and eagerness. They want to offer solutions for a better future. We must help them and harness their ability. It should be our priority to offer them all a bright brand new day.

Ruairi O’Kane is a former Director of Communications with the SDLP and is now the Communications Manager of Opportunity Youth, whose YouthWorks programme is targeted at 16/17 year-olds in Derry who are not in employment, education or training. For more info contact Opportunity Youth on 71371162 or email info@opportunity-youth.org