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A mission and a passion: interview with Sandy Begbie on implementing the Youth Guarantee

Sandy Begbie - Image credit: Sandy Begbie

A mission and a passion: interview with Sandy Begbie on implementing the Youth Guarantee

The whole youth employment piece has become a bit of, it’s probably an overused word, but a bit of a mission, and a passion,” Sandy Begbie tells Holyrood.

“And I think that all stems back to my upbringing and where I started.

“You know, statistically, I probably shouldn’t be where I am, given the postcode I was born into.

“And in my Young Person’s Guarantee report, I think the comment I make very early on is, the postcode you’re born into should not determine your life and your path and your career … So, doing the Young Person’s Guarantee work, that took me a nanosecond to decide to agree to do it because it’s something that’s so important to me.”

Coming from a working-class background on a council estate in Musselburgh, Begbie could very easily not have made it to where he is now, and he credits both opportunities and role models for giving him a good start.

He joined the Prestonpans branch of Royal Bank of Scotland a week after his 17th birthday and worked his way up through a range of major companies, mainly in the financial sector, as an HR specialist.

Latterly he worked for Tesco Bank, before taking up the post of chief executive of Scottish Financial Enterprise, the representative body for Scotland’s financial services industry, at the beginning of this month.

But alongside this, he has a passion for diversity, inclusion and youth employment.

Having led the Edinburgh Guarantee when it launched in 2011, Begbie was asked to look at how the Scottish Government’s Youth Guarantee – which promises every young person in Scotland between the ages of 16 and 24 either a job, an apprenticeship, study or a volunteering placement – should work in practice.

Begbie delivered his conclusions in September and, renamed as the Young Person Guarantee, it will launch at the end of October.

This follows engagement with young people on how they would like it to work – the answer being a single website with all the information they need.

But is it genuinely a guarantee, in the sense that any young person who has not found something can get in contact and say, ‘You need to set me up with something’?

“That’s a great question,” says Begbie.

“I mean, I said right in the very beginning – because you’ll probably recall when it was announced back at the end of June as part of the Higgins review – I said, right at the very beginning, you do understand that the word guarantee means a lot and it’s not a word that you should use lightly?

“So, in other words, if you’re going to use the word guarantee, you need to stand behind whatever the guarantee will look like.

“And of course, at that point we hadn’t defined exactly what the guarantee was, but in the report, in the section that’s in bold, that is the guarantee and, you know, the Scottish Government have said that they would stand behind that.

“Clearly, it will take time to deliver that, many months, you know, a year. We talked up to two years to have delivered it.

“But if we do deliver on the guarantee, one thing I’ve been at pains to stress is, in some ways this is a reaction to COVID, but actually it’s not just a reaction to COVID.

“This is about how do you reshape the employment landscape for young people in Scotland that lasts and is sustainable for the foreseeable future.

“And this is not something that if the economy recovers in two years’ time, you then turn around and say, ‘Well, I’m just going to drop the guarantee.’

“This is something that you’re going to have to stand behind for a very long time, which is also the reason why I reached out to all the opposition parties during the process, to seek their input and to gain their support in principle for the guarantee, which I received.

“Some difference on some of the tactical aspects of it and some of the specifics, but, you know, good support for the principle of having a strong guarantee and commitment to young people.

“I mean, in the report itself, I call out our experiences at the Edinburgh Guarantee and again, we debated using the word guarantee in 2010, and the guarantee in those days was actually relatively straightforward, which was a minimum of six months paid employment, paid work experience, for every young person in Edinburgh who was unemployed.

“And we were starting off with a number about 550 [unemployed young people] each year, and we got that down to pretty much 100.

“Now, so you could say, you didn’t quite fulfil the guarantee, and that would be a very valid point to make, but the point that Sue Bruce [former chief executive of City of Edinburgh Council] and I talk about is that, had we not set the bar very high, I don’t think we would have hit 80 per cent-plus success rate.

“And hence the reason why the ambition in the Young Person’s Guarantee is deliberately very ambitious.

“But now that we’re in the process of thinking through execution, they [the Scottish Government] need to stand behind that.”

Begbie recognises that at any time the guarantee won’t work for every young person, but as well as being driven by the sheer scale of the ambition, he also wants to change the thinking around youth unemployment.

“So, there has been work done on this in the past, around particularly those young people who need the most help, you know, the cost to society through the justice system, health, police, etc, is substantial.

“And, you know, my challenge – and others, as I say, have made this challenge in the past – is how do you take  that money that you’re spending anyway, and given we could be facing into 100,000 [young people unemployed], so even if you accept 10 per cent of that 100,000 young people who need most help, then you’re talking 10,000 young people, the cost of that population being unproductive is substantial to society, not just in direct costs, but also health, wellbeing, everything else.

“And surely that money would be better used to actually provide wage subsidies, training, etc, education for those young people, rather than the money being paid out to keep them unproductive?”

This is also why volunteering has been included in the possible destinations.

At first glance this seems to be risky, allowing for the potential exploitation of young people in unpaid work and leaving them at the mercy of living on benefits, but Begbie is adamant that there are good reasons to include it.

“So, there’s been lots of research done around if young people are unproductive or unconnected for six months or longer, then the amount of money and time and effort to reconnect them becomes quite significant.

“And given the scale of the challenge that we were facing into, then we needed to, I believed anyway, we needed to look at all the available levers and opportunities to keep young people connected.

“What I would really stress though is, and I’ve had this conversation with the STUC and COSLA, etc, is that this is not about replacing paid employment with unpaid employment.

“There’s a charter around volunteering, which was agreed with the STUC, and that charter absolutely should guide how volunteering is used.

“And I had the same conversation with a couple of the opposition parties, saying look, this is not about a replacing any jobs, etc.”

But the success of the whole scheme relies on getting employers on board in order to expand the number of jobs and apprenticeships that are available, which seems like a particular challenge in the current circumstances.

“That is undoubtedly the biggest challenge,” says Begbie.

In terms of achieving this, he is focusing on two areas. One is capital investment in ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects that could be brought forward.

“Businesses I’ve spoken to, I mean, you’re talking literally billions of pounds worth of investment that is spreading out over many years that actually if there was a way to accelerate those, would have a positive impact on the jobs market.

“And [if] you’re talking billions of investment, you’re talking about thousands of jobs on the back of that, whether it be in energy, whether it be in transport, whether it be in climate change, environmental projects or it being in shipping and ports, there are projects up and down in Scotland … and some are ready to go, some are very near ready to go.

“So conversations with government have been around how can we accelerate some of that because there’s now really good reason as to find a way to working through some of that.”

The second area is in breaking down the labour market into its four main categories – SMEs, large corporate organisations, the public sector and the voluntary sector – and thinking about what the ‘hundred thousand challenge’ looks like when you break it up across sectors, noting that some areas, such as health and social care, still have significant vacancies despite COVID.

“So how do we then think about the hundred thousand spread across those four different employer groupings?” Begbie asks.

“And how can we then best support those businesses to take on young people?

“And the reason why the SME market is highlighted specifically in the report is there’s 350,000 of them.

“Even if the government supported, or put in some form of support mechanism, which could be a wrap around on Kickstart [the UK Government’s six-month youth employment scheme], so take the money from Kickstart and then wrap around additional support to take the jobs beyond six months, say to 12, 18 months, then even if you’ve got five per cent of SMEs or 10 per cent of SMEs to take on one person, then you’re in the 17,500 to 35,000 category.

“And there are SMEs up and down the country who actually are doing quite well at the moment.

“There are many who are up against it really badly in certain sectors, but there are other businesses and other sectors who actually are doing okay and continue to have skills shortages in data, digital analytics, automation, etc. So that’s really how we thought about it.

“So, undoubtedly, the key here is how do you stimulate the demand side of the labour market.

“There are big businesses who will continue to do what they do and potentially do more.

“The public sector, a huge employer, is going to put its name behind the Young Person’s Guarantee when it’s formally launched, and at 500,000 employees, again, even if there was even two or three per cent within the public sector, then again, you’re starting to get into that 10,000, 15,000 number of opportunities.

“So, when you break it down across the employment profile in Scotland, you can actually see how this could be achieved.

“But it’s going to take a monumental effort to do it, given the current crisis we’ve got.”

Read the most recent article written by Jenni Davidson - Lessons from lockdown: interview with Michael Matheson

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