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Page last updated at 03:03 GMT, Monday, 26 April 2010 04:03 UK
Britain's young 'Neets' face the reality of recession

Lord Digby Jones with Tim Cruise and Ben Gillett

In 2007, at the height of economic boom, Panorama visited Swindon to report on the growing problem of Britain's Neets - young people who were not in education, employment or training. Two years later, and facing a much tougher job market, reporter Vivian White caught up with the young men who were his 'real apprentices'.

Ben Gillett smartened himself up to talk to us on camera when we reappeared into his life. He is 23 now and his position as one of British society's Neets is not unusual.

By his own admission, he "made a hash" of his A levels, and he now inhabits, physically at least, his parents' nice house in Swindon, sharing a bedroom with his younger brother.

But psychologically Ben is in a different country altogether, a place called unemployment - complete with its own language, customs and social order.

When we first met, reality television had inspired us to make a programme called "Real Apprentices".

Minus the flash and budget of Sir Alan Sugar, we nonetheless set four young Neets some real-life challenges. The first was to chase a real vacancy, where we knew that the employer would not be put off by the fact that our "apprentices" had very little work experience on their CVs.

It was a job at a stylish-looking new food and juice bar, the "Energy Kitchen" that was opening in Swindon's Designer Outlet Centre - a shopping mall where they used to build locomotives.


Swindon, it seemed, was a town used to coping with jobs shocks and reinvention was in the air.

If I was watching this I'd throw something at the TV and say get off your backsides and work and we should cut all your benefits and starve you into going back to work
Lord Digby Jones

But Ben's rather down-to-earth description of how he would deal with difficult customers, picked up from briefly working at a McDonalds from where he had been sacked, was perhaps not a recipe for success and the Energy Kitchen turned him down.

Our next challenge was a day's work experience at the BMW factory where they made the body panels for the Mini. He shone there. We had not intended it as the route to a job, but Ben got agency shifts there within the week and he was off to a solid start.

We did not meet his parents Bob and Nicky back in 2007. But his father wrote us after the programme, delighted by the change he had witnessed in his son.

This is what he told us recently about that time in Ben's life: "What we were seeing up until that point was somebody who was unemployed and wasn't really that interested in looking for work and we thought was just very, very lazy, and suddenly we discovered that, no, actually there's a whole different side to this guy, he's actually a very, very hard worker and very dedicated once he's given that opportunity."

Then recession hit, shifts dried up and in November 2008 Ben was once again unemployed. And he was knocked right back.

For the 'Return of the Real Apprentices', we have gone back to Swindon to catch up with the same four young men.

Ben, so optimistic just over two years go, told us: "I would like work, but I'm now at a stage where I honestly do not see it happening any time soon and, to be quite honest, that depresses me further."

He made an effort and shaved off his beard and tied his long hair back before our interview. While we were not setting him any challenges this time, our apprentice did realise that someone might be watching.

But on an ordinary day, he conceded, he would not have bothered.


The young unemployed tend to meet other Neets in this 'other' world where they live.

Ben Gillett
Ben Gillett is among almost one million unemployed young people

If you are young and you have work, you also have regular money coming in and friends who cannot get their round in on a night out can lead to embarrassment or, at the very least, awkwardness.

And what do you talk about? "What did you do at work?" A no-no for the workless.

So when it comes to Neets, like sticks with like - reinforcing the sense of isolation that the young unemployed feel and their disconnection from the ordinary demands of life that face those in work.

Those basics include the little things, like getting up in the morning and smartened up to face the day.

Depressing? Yes, it is. And in previously jobs-rich towns like Swindon, which have been especially badly hit by the recession, there are now fewer jobs on offer, and more experienced workers going after them.

It can feel easy to tell the young unemployed to pull their socks up and try harder, even easier if you are, yourself, in work.

But Ben Gillett's parents have moved from frustration and confusion at their inability to help their son into work, to a belief that it is time that he was forced into it.

'Vicious circle'

The Gilletts both now support US-style "workfare" in which welfare benefits are only paid in return for work, broadly defined - either training for work, or community work, or taking up a vacancy - whether it is the job you want or not.

"Anything," said Ben's mother Nicky Gillett, nearly as frustrated at his situation as her son. "Not even for the money, just to stop this…vicious circle of unemployment, staying in bed all day."

Our return to catch up with the "Real Apprentices", while not a reality show, is nonetheless a real-life drama.

While two of the young foursome we first met in 2007 are still living in that 'other' world of unemployment, two others have happily escaped from it into work.

On our return, we also brought in some expert advice in the form of Lord Digby Jones, the former head of the CBI and non-political minister of trade.

We introduced Lord Jones, a bundle of energy and enthusiasm, to our two remaining "Neets", Ben and Tim Cruise, a former classmate who we also first met in 2007.

His frustration was evident.

"If I was watching this I'd throw something at the TV and say get off your backsides and work and we should cut all your benefits and starve you into going back to work," he told them.

To their credit, both young men, took it pretty well.

Panorama: Return of the Real Apprentices, BBC One, Monday, 26 April at 2030BST and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

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