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For Britain’s youth, a sense of down and out


LONDON » For almost two years, Nicki Edwards has been looking for work — any type of work.

She is 19 years old, articulate and self-possessed. But like many young people in Britain, she could not afford to remain at her university, making it impossible to find a job. London’s youth riots last summer have closed even more doors to people like her.

"If you are not working, in training or in college, you might as well be a thief — employers just do not take you seriously," Edwards said. "At some point, you just say, ‘I’m stuck and I will never find a job."’

Perhaps the most debilitating consequence of the eurozone’s economic downturn and its debt-driven austerity crusade has been the soaring rate of youth unemployment. Spain’s jobless rate for people ages 16 to 24 is approaching 50 percent; Greece’s is 48 percent; and Portugal’s and Italy’s, 30 percent. Here in Britain, the rate is 22.3 percent, the highest since such data began being collected in 1992. (The comparable rate for Americans is 18 percent.)

"It’s pretty bad," said Jonathan Portes, an economist here who has studied youth employment for Britain’s opposition Labour Party.

The lack of opportunity is feeding a mounting alienation and anger among young people across Europe — animus that threatens to poison the aspirations of a generation and has already served as a wellspring for a number of violent protests in European cities from Athens to London. And new economic data from Wednesday, showing much of Europe in the doldrums or recession, does little to bolster hopes for a better jobs picture any time soon.

Experts say that the majority of those who took to the streets in London last summer were young people who were unemployed, out of school and not participating in a job training program.

Classified by statisticians as NEETs (not in education, employment or training), they number about 1.3 million, or one of every five 16-to-24-year-olds in the country.

While youth unemployment has long been a chronic issue here, experts say the British government’s debt-reduction commitment to rein in social spending appears to be making the problem worse, experts say. Insufficient job training and apprenticeship programs, they argue, contribute to the large pool of permanently unemployed young people in Britain.

"It is patently wrong for young people to have such a poor start in life, when there is so much more we could be doing," said Hilary Steedman, an economist at the London School of Economics. "Just because they did not go to university does not mean they don’t want to work."

Many young people here spend endless months applying for technical jobs for which they do not have adequate training. In many cases, months turn into years, with people remaining on the dole indefinitely. In the most recent fiscal year, the government paid 4.2 billion pounds ($6.6 billion) in benefits to this age group, at least some of which might be better spent on job training, some experts argue.

"A well-financed apprenticeship program is an important social investment that can enhance the competitive capacity of an economy," said John P. Martin, an economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, who studies labor market issues across Europe.

Steedman, a specialist in vocational training, said that Britain lags far behind countries like Germany, Austria and the Netherlands in its use of training programs to introduce young people to permanent work.

Fewer than one in 10 employers in Britain offered apprenticeships in 2010, she said, compared with at least a quarter of employers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. And while government financing for such programs has increased in the last few years, Steedman said that much of the money went to training existing workers 25 years and older rather than building the skills of 18- to-20-year-olds.

"It’s completely perverse," she said, pointing out that 40 percent of the 500,000 or so apprenticeships go to people age 25 or older. "Companies are subsidizing 25-year-olds who already have jobs."

Edwards, for her part, completed two years at Greenford College, in London, before leaving last March because she could no longer afford the cost. She had hopes of pursuing a career in mental health, but now has narrowed her ambitions to taking care of children or the elderly.

Despite her inability to find a job, she keeps trying almost daily, filling out resumes online, handing them out in person and stomaching the shame she feels in having to accept government benefits.

"I don’t want to get paid by the government," said Edwards, who lives in West London. "But what am I supposed to do? People can’t get jobs."

James Lawson, 18, is also desperately looking for a job. He lives in rent-subsidized youth hostel in the Hammersmith section of West London, and barely gets by on the 103 pounds ($163) in unemployment benefits he receives every two weeks.

With his limited education and experience Lawson sees an apprenticeship as his only hope. He recently completed an information technology training course at a local academy. But the training led nowhere, so now he is resting his hopes on securing an apprenticeship at the British military contractor BAE Systems that promises — if he can secure one of the few positions — to provide him training as an electrical engineer.

"I wake up very morning and say to myself, ‘I don’t have a job,"’ he said. "But I have to stay positive — even if it means taking a thousand no’s to get that one yes."

Neither Lawson nor Edwards participated in last summer’s riots. They both say, however, that they understand the frustrations that pushed many of their peers to break the law.

One 19-year-old who admits he looted during the July disturbances says he has now joined a gang and taken to petty burglaries to make ends meet.

"I just don’t care anymore," he said, declining to identify himself. "I am sick of living like rubbish."

Even those who stayed in school are struggling to find work.

Tam Chowdhury, 25, graduated from Southbank University in London in 2010 with a criminology and law degree. Out of the 105 positions she applied for, she said, she secured just two interviews.

"Even if you have qualifications, it can be really tough," said Chowdhury, who works at Tomorrow’s People, a charity in London that provides training and preparation for disadvantaged young people looking to enter the job market.

While the recession is clearly making it the harder for the young in Britain and across Europe to find work, economists argue that without a strategic partnership between the government and the private sector that trains those who want to be trained, youth unemployment in many countries will remain high even after the economy recovers.

Martin, of the OECD, said that the European countries that supported apprenticeship programs — Germany, Austria and the Netherlands — had also managed to sustain robust manufacturing and export industries.

In other economies, the cooperation between employers, government and unions is not as strong.

"In England, for example, many employers prefer to poach skilled labor," Martin said.

None of which comes as news to Stefan Radanovic, 19, who says he has applied for hundreds of jobs in customer service or sales.

He is looking for a job in the music industry but is willing to do anything to help support himself and his single mother, with whom he lives in the Ealing district of West London.

Radanovic presents a confident and polite appearance — all he wants, he says, is a chance — although he understands why he has not yet received one.

"I don’t blame them," he said of the countless employers who have ignored his resume. "They just don’t want to train you."

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