The best present a young NEET living in the countryside could hope for this Christmas is the promise of a decent job not too far from home. NEET stands for ‘not in education, employment or training’ and the number of 16- to 24-year-olds who fit that bill in our hamlets, villages and country towns is high and rising faster than among their urban counterparts.
Let’s face it: our rural population is getting older – most country-dwellers are aged from 45 to 64 and, before too long, more than one in four will be pensioners. Young blood is desperately needed to keep the place alive and economically viable. But job opportunities are not as plentiful, and pay not as high, as in urban areas. The exodus to the cities by those in their teens and 20s grows apace and for many who stay behind, job prospects look bleak.
For example, in rural Northumberland this September 2,670 were out of work in the 16-24 age bracket. When the national park advertised two short-term placements as trainee rangers, no less than 140 young hopefuls applied.
Farmer’s daughter Frances Johnson, who’s 23, graduated with a degree in environmental management and has been searching for her first step on the careers ladder in Northumberland without success. Now she is working in a café.
“I don’t want to be unemployed so this keeps me busy while I continue to apply,” she told me. Her dream is an administrative job either in farming or the environment in the local uplands. But she adds: “I realise I may have to move away but I don’t want to leave the countryside. The problem is many employers are demanding experience and that is not easy to come by.”
A rich heritage
Research by The Prince’s Trust reveals that since the recession began four years ago there has been a 168 percent increase in young people who have been without work for more than two years. And the number claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance for six months or longer has mushroomed by 315 percent. The TUC’s general secretary Brendan Barber called youth unemployment “a ticking time-bomb under the nation’s finances”.
Latest figures revealed that the number of unemployed 16 to 24 year olds has dropped slightly in the past few months across the UK so I asked the Office for National Statistics to separate rural young from the total. I discovered that 140,000 have no job, compared to 88,000 four years ago.
“Long-term unemployment can lead to a downward spiral of poverty, homelessness and depression,” says Martina Milburn, chief executive of the Prince’s Trust, which has helped more than 700,000 young people since it was set up in 1976. “We are reaching out to those who need a reminder that there is hope. There is support out there to find a job and get your life moving again.”
Earlier this year, the Commission for Rural Communities called on the Government to appoint a minister for youth services to tackle this. Many organisations are providing work experience and encouragement and I’m told an increasing number of rural young people are now self-employed, setting up their own businesses or working freelance rather than decamping to the bright lights. We should wish them well – the countryside needs more entrepreneurs, more jobs and more chances to achieve dreams if it is to survive as a credible workplace.