YOUNG people have had a very tough time during Covid. Social lives have been restricted, as have sport and exercise, and the opportunity to travel and see the world. Many have lost work, and their incomes have taken a huge hit.
They are angry and frustrated, and feel that they have been ignored.
This generation cannot be forgotten or left behind, as we open up to the world once again.
We need a new deal for young people and at the heart of it needs to be good quality jobs.
Youth unemployment has reached critical levels as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Latest figures from the end of March show the unemployment rates for young people aged 15 to 24 years at 59.2%.
The fact is, that the sectors that have been some of the worst affected by this pandemic like hospitality and retail, tend to be dominated by younger workers who have suffered enormously as a result.
Continuing with the same-old, failed policies of the past will only see a repeat of this – a low wage and low productivity economy which left many young workers exposed to unemployment, poor employment and insecure employment.
To address the widespread youth unemployment we are facing, we need to build back better, we have to be brave and imaginative, and we must look at how and where the state needs to intervene to facilitate the creation of decent, sustainable work.
A definitive Youth Employment Strategy will be essential as we begin preparing for the way out this pandemic.
During the financial crash and austerity years, exploitative schemes such as JobBridge and Gateway were used to massage youth unemployment figures. These schemes did not work – they displaced existing paid work, deferred real job creation, depressed wages, and exacerbated underemployment through the promotion of precarious work.
As we move through the Covid-19 crisis, we in Sinn Féin refuse to allow the failed policies of the past to return. We have proposed a number of solutions and policies in order to get people into employment across a variety of areas and sectors. In particular, we have put a focus on ensuring that young people are in education, training or employment.
Education and producing a highly qualified workforce is crucial to ensuring Ireland tackles unemployment. Sinn Féin have consistently proposed solutions to make third-level education truly free so that it does not exclude anyone.
It is clear, however, that this route does not suit everyone. Good quality apprenticeships are crucial, to help young people who may have lost their job due to the pandemic.
We need to complete reimagine how apprenticeships work. There needs to be a move away from the who-you-know apprenticeships of the past, and the struggles of scouring through dozens of websites and listings to try and find a placement.
Traditionally, apprenticeships here have been dominated by construction related crafts such as bricklaying, plastering, electrical and plumbing, with the state benefitting enormously from this focus.
Sinn Féin want to build on the success of these apprenticeships and expand this way of learning into a host of new fields such as green energy, hospitality, financial services, retail, ICT, as well as trade apprenticeships to aid the rollout of massive homebuilding and retrofitting programmes, to name but a few.
To do this, though, we need significant financial investment, and we need to deliver radical change to the apprenticeship system, focusing on significant expansion of existing schemes, as well as abolishing student contribution fees for apprentices.
We need supports that are person-centred and enable young people to have sustainable skills to be able to achieve long-term employment. This is why Sinn Féin called on the Government to invest close to €80million in order to reform and expand the apprenticeship system.
We also need a specialised plan for Cork, to bring more apprenticeship places to our city and to equip our young people with sustainable skills.
This week in the Education Committee, I urged the CEO of SOLAS to engage with the Cork ETB to bring back painting apprenticeships including advanced and decorative painting to Rossa Avenue.
When I spoke to one specialist in the field, they informed me that Irish customers were looking to Britain to find skilled painters to undertake these tasks, which is a total waste of our local talents.
Re-establishing these kind of apprenticeships could be a first step in the right direction for apprenticeships generally in Cork.
It has been proven that where the proper supports and opportunities are put in place, we can get young people into employment, into education and into training. Successive governments have failed to tackle this and have allowed unemployment rates to snowball to shocking levels, with 1 in 2 currently unemployed. It is not good enough for these young people or their families.
Sinn Féin will continue to stand up for young workers, building a society that supports our young people and provides them with the opportunities that they deserve.