The Labour Party is by no means alone in worrying what to do about 74,000 young people who are in neither employment, education or training - "Neets" as they are known in social statistics. There is nothing "neet" about their lack of anything useful to do, or their lack of motivation in some cases, or their job prospects. As Labour's leader Andrew Little said at the weekend, "Some young people occasionally do need a kick up the backside to get them out the door."
He had just announced at his party's Annual Conference a policy to offer each of them six months' work at the minimum wage once they have been unemployed for six months. The work the party has in mind is assisting charities and community groups, and working for the Department of Conservation on projects such as pest control or riparian planting. It is the sort of work that springs to most people's minds when they see young people on the dole and think surely there is something useful for them to do for that money.
Many would like the sort of work Labour is suggesting to be a condition of receiving the dole but the party is offering them something slightly better - the minimum wage, $15.25 an hour. The problem is most of the unskilled work available to them in the private sector will be at the minimum wage. The proposal runs the risk of removing potential workers from the labour market at a time of skill shortages in sectors such as farm labour, hospitality and aged care.
Labour has tried to avoid this problem by limiting the jobs in its "Ready for Work" proposal to six months at a time. It is not clear whether someone would have the right to take up one of these jobs more than once, after a stand-down of six months each time. If the scheme works as the party hopes, it will give a young person the kind of work habits that will encourage them to find a real job. It has costed that scheme at $60 million a year on the basis that the 10,000 people it will employ are likely not to need more than four months' work on average.
It is not clear why the party thinks the scheme would work this well. The "Neets" already have employment, education and training available if they want it or are prepared to move to where jobs and training are being offered. Unemployment went below 5 per cent nationwide last week and employers are relying on immigration for farm work and other jobs that New Zealand school leavers are not taking in sufficient numbers. What makes Labour think these youngsters will be any more keen to clear gorse for DoC or make beds at the City Mission?
Little's "kick up the backside" will be the gentle encouragement of mentors - one for every 25 people in the scheme - who will make sure they turn up for work and help them gain the confidence to look for a permanent job. Mentors have often featured in employment policies. Staff at Work and Income NZ already are supposed to be helping the young people they put in touch with employers in the area who are in need of them. Labour's scheme will be welcomed by DoC and charities provided with extra hands, but it must be remembered that in the real world these jobs will be financed by taxpayers.