Nottingham, England — Joe Lunney, small and wiry, held a billiard cue in his hand as we talked in a drab back room of a Nottingham youth club. He was impatient to get back to his game.
Steve Ramage came in late and sat against a wall. Hassan Zaman and James Gibbons whispered to each other and laughed.
All four are 17, and all four have been out of work since they left school last year in this east Midlands city of Robin Hood and Maid Marian fame - part of Western Europe's army of unemployed that now totals some 11 million people, young and old.
All major industrial countries including Japan face rising unemployment in this era of recession. Here in Britain, the official rate is 14 percent. Among young people it is closer to 20 percent. The government of Margaret Thatcher is accelerating efforts to help people like Joe, Steve, Hassan, and James: In Nottingham, 43 percent of those out of work are aged under 24.
The United States, where youth training programs are being worked out by the Reagan administration, is among a number of countries watching Britain's efforts. Unemployment in the US jumped to 10.8 percent in November, to a total of 12 million, the highest figure since 1941. In Michigan, the rate rose a full percentage point, to 17.2.
So far 414,000 young people here are included in a variety of temporary government programs to provide training and experience for six months at a time or to subsidize companies to offer employment. The youngsters do not appear in official unemployment totals.
Joe Lunney worked in an antiques company, receiving the standard $:25 ($40) a week in state money offered under the Youth Opportunities Program, known as YOP for short. By late 1982 YOP covered 270,000 16- and 17-year-olds on six-month programs. After two weeks of sweeping up and making tea, however, Joe quit.
James Gibbons worked for a butcher, but his training came to an abrupt end when the butcher went out of business.
Steve Ramage enjoyed a stint as an assistant youth leader but could find no work when he left. He is about to join the Grenadier Guards instead.
Hassan Zaman found a metalworking course ''as boring as school.''
The system has, in fact, worked patchily. Trade unions see it as cut-price slave labor. A general criticism is that it is ineffective make-work designed mainly to reduce the official unemployment total to 3.4 million.
The problem is so urgent that the Conservative Thatcher government, which is trying to cut government spending in other areas, has doubled it in this one. It has budgeted $:1 billion ($1.6 billion) next year to expand a number of programs aimed at young people.
All of the half-million 16-year-olds leaving high school in 1983 will be offered a full year of improved job training combined with education. Those who don't enroll can still receive unemployment relief of $:16 and 85 pence ($26.96) per week. Those who do will be paid the flat rate of $:25 ($40) per week. Daily fares will be reimbursed if they cost more than $:4 ($6.40) a week.
At meetings around the country, the Employment Department is offering companies incentive payments of $:1,850 ($2,960) per place if they will train more young people next year than they trained in 1982.
Officials say 100,000 places have already been found. Also being widened from a current 31,000 places to a planned 130,000 is a community projects program. Those between 18 and 24 who have been out of work for at least six months, and those over 24 who have been unemployed for a year, will be paid for building walls, repainting church halls, and so on.
Thus Britain is belatedly coming into line with West Germany, other European countries, and Japan where public and private training and placement programs to help school leavers have long been in place.
Britain is famed for its universities, and for the quality of its construction, mining, and engineering training. Yet close to 75 percent of British young people who leave high school each year miss both, according to Peter Morrison, joint parly secretary of state for employment in an interview.
They have been the first to be hit by recession. Joe Lunney is one of them, but he is far from impressed by existing programs.
Twice he has enrolled in six-month YOP programs, but he dropped out of both. ''I like anything to do with wood,'' he said laconically, squinting down his cue. ''The first course was at a college. Every afternoon we had to practice writing. The second one was with an antiques company, but how can you learn anything when you sweep the floor and make tea? I walked out.''
In his last year in high school Joe took nine subjects - and failed them all. Now he lives at home and pays 15 pence (24 cents) a night to play billiards at the youth club.
Would he not rather earn the YOP's $:25 than $:8 less on relief? He shrugged his shoulders. ''Money isn't everything,'' he said.
Hassan Zaman also lives with his parents. He finds his unemployment relief more than enough to visit the youth club several nights a week from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. and during the day at weekends. ''There's no work,'' he said. ''You used to have to tell the unemployment office you'd gone on interviews before you could get your money, but not now. There are so many out of work that they just pay you. . . .''
Looking after the club as a youth counselor is Dave Hayler, a lean and sober middle-aged man with grave doubts about programs like YOP. ''They (young people) go on it, and they come off it,'' he said. ''There are still no jobs. It's all too easy to pick up their relief money. I'm constantly surprised at the (STR)10 notes I see around this club. . . .''
The picture is brighter across the city in a converted factory, where Joy Nugent, aged 16, sits at a knitting machine making a sweater from blue wool.
Unemployed since she left school in the summer of this year, she now earns (STR)25 a week as one of 300 young people on a pilot project for next year's expanded training program.
The idea is for her to spend three months in the factory, which has 15 sections all making goods for sale to charities and to government departments. She will move to three months at a nearby college, spend three months back in the factory, and end with another three months in the college.
''I give $:15 a week to my mum and it costs me $:5 a week for fares and lunches, so I only have $:5 to spend on records. . . . Some of the boys in the upholstery section next door won't keep it up, but I hope to get a job out of it. . . .''
Her section supervisor, Joan Duriez, said Joy had picked up the techniques quickly. Like all the other supervisors, Mrs. Duriez was unemployed before she was hired by manager Harry Meadowcroft.
''Three of our youngsters left last Friday for full-time jobs,'' Mr. Meadowcroft said gleefully. ''Even before the pilot program began, 70 percent of all those trained here under other projects found jobs. . . .
''One of the greatest pleasures in my life is to drive to work and be waved at by a youngster who used to be here on his way to a steady job. . . . That's what it is all about. . . .''