Youth unemployment is worryingly high. Despite a marginal improvement in this month's employment figures, more than one in five 16-24 year olds in the UK is out of work ... can enterprise be the answer?

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Youth unemployment is worryingly high. Despite a marginal improvement in this month’s employment figures, more than one in five 16-24 year olds in the UK is out of work with the picture across Europe reflecting the same trend. As we begin to find our way out of one of the most unequal economic recoveries in recent history we are at risk of leaving a sizable chunk of a generation behind.

Student protest against University fee hike in 2010. Image: Bobby D’Marca, Flickr

In the UK, high youth unemployment figures are complicated further by the recent hikes in University fees and the abolition of the EMA allowance, both of which add a barrier to young people wishing to continue in higher education and with many firms downsizing or abolishing their graduate programmes. Even those who continue with their studies are facing a harder battle to get into the workforce than any recent cohort of optimistic young graduates.

Sir Mervyn King of the Bank of England has this week predicted a sharp reversal from last month’s positive quarter of economic growth, which was enhanced by the Olympics, to a fourth quarter of very weak growth and a possible ‘triple-dip’ recession. It is realistic to assume that the answer for the UK’s young people may not lie with traditional job creation.

In contrast to the doom and gloom cast by statisticians and economists, this week also sees the UK embrace Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW). The week is an international initiative which aims to encourage enterprise and entrepreneurship through a series of events and the promotion of resources available to those trying to get a business off the ground or develop an idea.

Glynn Pegler is the co-founder of Young Brits Network, an organisation which champions young talent and works with enterprise organisations and companies who are looking to work with young people. He also works with UnLtd, an organisation which encourages social entrepreneurship, and with a number of large brands who are looking to encourage enterprise amongst young people as part of their social benefits programs. He says:

“The idea that we are facing this lost generation is a massive tragedy. We have an opportunity in the UK to be agile if we want to, we have a history of innovation. We have an opportunity to look at things like the education system and to provide self belief and allow young people to find the solutions. The only way we can provide solutions in the face of funding cuts is if communities provide the opportunity themselves.”

Pegler is passionate about youth enterprise for a reason; starting his own magazine aged just 15 he gained confidence through the process, he reflected:

“When I started my business I was so shy I wouldn’t pick up the phone. It was a challenge for me and it was only having an idea and being encouraged to make my idea happen that gave me the confidence.”

Confidence is key in this equation. Last year The Prince’s Trust, who supported Pegler in his business venture and continue to fund youth enterprise extensively throughout the UK, produced a report: “Broke Not Broken: Tackling youth poverty and the aspiration gap” which identified a chasm in the aspiration and perceived social mobility of 16 to 24 year olds from deprived backgrounds in comparison to similarly aged respondents from more affluent areas. A quarter of those from deprived backgrounds responded that “people like them don’t succeed in life” and they’ll “end up on benefits for at least part of their life”.

The trust believes their role in training, funding and supporting youth enterprise is vital to overcoming this gap in aspiration but like all charities and organisations, dependent on funding and donations, they are facing increasing financial pressure in the current economic climate.

English: Richard Branson Richard Branson arriv...

English: Richard Branson Richard Branson arriving at the British Grand Prix. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the public sector becomes squeezed, some in the private sector are taking responsibility for the communities in which they operate and are seizing the opportunity to fill in the gaps. A long time supporter of entrepreneurship, Richard Branson, has begun utilising the natural link between his media company and the interests of young media savvy people to set up Virgin Media Pioneers. Born out of a pilot programme involving 100 young people which resulted in them gaining enterprise qualifications and some going on to plan their own festival after receiving training on the ground at the annual V music festival. The programme is now rapidly expanding to train and empower young to turn their business ideas into reality.

Global Entrepreneurship Week has seen the launch of both public and private sector resources for those seeking to go into enterprise. The Department for Business has launched Business in You, a ‘one-stop-shop’ for advice and funding information, modelled on the acclaimed Welsh Government portal for enterprise. Kickstarter, the international crowd funding platform launched in the UK just last month and offers an opportunity, particularly for young people, with a creative idea to get off the ground without using more formal financing channels which they may find barriers to accessing.

One of the challenges remains promoting these resources and opportunities to those who could most benefit from them which is where umbrella campaigns like GEW can help.

For Glynn Pegler, however, the opportunities to make a tangible difference to the fortunes of those young people who currently find themselves under or unemployed are there for the taking, he says:

“We have a lot of areas devastated by loss of industry who have lost faith a bit, and how do you restore that, it’s a big challenge for the UK. But every young person can turn around and be solutions focused and to create their own future. It’s about having the belief in that.”