Fightback East: How do we fix Covid's economic impact on young people?
- Credit: Department for Work & Pensions
For more than a year now how people have experienced the pandemic has been split starkly along generational lines.
At first, coronavirus was a disease that only affected the elderly.
It was only seen as a problem for over-70s. Then for the over-60s. Then came the harrowing stories like that of 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab who was buried without any family at his funeral.
Or the countless number of seemingly healthy people in their 20s and 30s whose lives had been turned upside down by long Covid.
The virus, then, affects us all — but its economic impacts are being shouldered disproportionately by the younger sections of society.
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Within months of the first lockdown being enforced, the amount of under 25s in East Anglia claiming out of work benefits rocketed to almost one in 10.
In Suffolk, 8.9% of 18 to 24-year-olds are currently claiming jobless benefits. While in Norfolk the rate is slightly lower at 8%.
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Even those still in work may not be working. As of January 31, 855,200 jobs held by those aged 24 or under were on furlough. Almost two million jobs held by young people were furloughed at some point between March and the end of July.
What is government's response to this problem of mass youth unemployment?
In September, the Kickstart scheme was announced.
It is a bold, ambitious plan to pay employers to employ 250,000 young people who may be at risk of long-term unemployment in high quality jobs.
On the face of it, the scheme is a great idea.
East Anglia has long had a problem with 'brain drain' and finding long-term high quality jobs for its young people.
Kickstart seemed to be exactly the sort of thing the region would benefit from. But in its rollout, the scheme has been toothless.
Last week this newspaper asked Therese Coffey, the cabinet minister overseeing Kickstart, about the scheme's progress after she made a virtual visit to the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce who have been working to help companies access the scheme.
She said the scheme had only got 6,000 young people into work in its first six months due to difficulties with recruiting and training new staff when in lockdown.
She added: "I think we are on track. I'm confident we can catch up and accelerate some of the other elements to do that."
That leaves the DWP with 66% of the time to do 97.6% of the work.
Both the secretary of state and a spokesman for her department were unable to tell us how many jobs had been filled in East Anglia.
But nevertheless, Dr Coffey insisted the jobs were on there way and that it was just lockdown that prevented more of them from already being filled.
She said: "There's about 30,000 live vacancies where young people can look at that opportunity. There's about 20,000 being processed for interview.
"The pipeline is there. It's just in particular the lockdown restrictions have held back a lot of people from actually starting their placements.
Perhaps she is right and the jobs will be filled before the end of the scheme. I hope she is. But from the outside looking in, the DWP seem to have set themselves up for an impossible task.
Schemes like Kickstart offer the tonic this region needs to come back from the economic brink we find ourselves on, but now they need to be followed through.