Let's promote social enterprise and get young people into work

by Cliff Prior, CEO UnLtd | UnLtd
Friday, 18 October 2013 15:10 GMT

People look at adverts posted in the window of a recruitment agency in London in 2012. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

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We should recognise that the social enterprise sector is not a little cult any more - one in five starts-ups is social and one in five members of the workforce is now a sole or joint trader

The past few weeks have been the conference season – political parties, think-tank reports, the whole business.

As ever, there was lots of froth. But underneath that was a set of statistics and stories that tell us about an awesome change in the world of work and enterprise.

Here are my top four items and thoughts about what we should do in response:

  1. Three quarters of all new jobs are coming from people moving into self-employment or being hired by micro or small enterprises.
  2. For people moving out of unemployment into paid occupation, that proportion goes up to 8 percent. That is staggering – only one in eight is getting hired by a big employer.
  3. Two apprentices taken on through the Barclays scheme told their stories. One, with 16 decent GCSE passes - really, 16, no misprint - couldn't get work for 12 months. She was sent to the same ‘CV writing club’ four times by the Work Programme before hitting lucky. The other, an unaccompanied minor refugee, turfed out of the detention camp when coming of age, went round restaurants and bars doing a day's cleaning work for free at each one to try to get a job. Each time she was told ‘You don't have enough experience.’ Now, after six months at Barclays she is being moved out of an apprenticeship into operational banking because of her exceptional drive and intelligence. Her story moved an audience of hardened political hacks.
  4. One in five starts-ups is now social. Two-thirds of the rest – the commercial start-ups – are committed to social and environmental practice.

So what does this all say?

The position young people are in is so challenging, so tough, and yet our entire government and economic system is still designed for an age that's almost vanished. The Work Programme is meant to get people ‘ready for employers’, apprenticeships are designed for big employers, the benefits system can't handle part-time work let alone self-employment and school kids are given a fantasy picture of a world that might as well be ‘Downton Abbey’ for all its current relevance.

It says some important things for UnLtd too.

For what we can do in schools, to give young people – particularly those without business folk in their family or circle – the chance to try entrepreneurship and build the confidence and self-determination they will need all too soon.

For what we can do in the transition to adulthood, knowing that entrepreneurship and leadership development will be vital for success.

Most importantly, we should recognise that the social enterprise sector is not a little cult any more. One in five starts-ups is social. And one in five members of the workforce is now a sole or joint trader. Starting up, starting social, is becoming a mainstream activity. If the statistics reported over these past few weeks are true, it is even more mainstream than getting employed by a big company.

UnLtd’s work backing over 1,000 people to start new social ventures every year is wonderful, but the scale of interest is so much greater. We've already started to make our support more available – our work on creating an ‘ecosystem’ of support for social entrepreneurs, with universities, colleges and now schools and housing associations spreading the social entrepreneurship love. But can we go further? Can we get support for social start-ups into the mainstream system?

Right now we’re researching ideas such as an apprenticeship to pair up young people with experienced social entrepreneurs and a foundation degree based on business skills training for those running their own start-up social enterprises. And – very timely – the next round of our Big Venture Challenge programme for ambitious social entrepreneurs looking for investment, will aim to tackle the entry into employment issue.

I make no apologies for harping on about this topic so much. The risk of a lost generation is a human as well as a social and economic tragedy.

I don't know how feasible our initiatives will prove to be, nor whether the bureaucracy of it will allow us to keep it real. But I do know that we should try. The need is clear and great. The opportunities are awesome. It's worth our best efforts, for sure.

Cliff Prior is chief executive of UnLtd, a UK-based foundation for social entrepreneurs. It resources more than 1,000 individuals each year through its core awards programme. Find out more at www.unltd.org.uk