Youth training -- Britain's prize weapon against unemployment

It seemed a mystery why 17-year-old Paula Muspratt even bothered to show up for classes in the Youth Training Scheme in this northeastern port city. She was so lacking in self-confidence that she would scarcely glance at the teacher, and she spent much of the time burying her head in her folded arms sprawled on the desk in front of her.

But she continued to come because she had been told that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had said that any youth wanting training would be found a place in the Youth Training Scheme. The training program is one of the prized weapons in the government's arsenal to fight record unemployment, now at 3.25 million.

Paula Muspratt was right. Mrs. Thatcher has promised that there will be enough places for training young people. Her motivation for doing so is clear: She doesn't want unemployment benefits to be an option before the age of 18.

The prime minister announced in December that the government plans to stop the 17.30-a-week ($20.76) supplementary benefit for about 234,000 unemployed 16- and 17-year-olds.

``Young people ought not to be idle. It is very bad for them. It starts them off wrong,'' she says.

The prime minister maintains that many school-leavers would still find work. It's a claim that lacks credence in this city where unemployment stands at 24.9 percent -- almost double the national average. At the same time, Mrs. Thatcher says those who could not find jobs have the option of going into higher education, or skill training. ``They should not have the option of being unemployed.''

That's where the Youth Training Scheme comes in. It is one of the few government proposals aimed at bringing down youth unemployment that has not run into heavy political flak.

If anything, there is a feeling that the training, which lasts one year, should be extended another year as it has in Northern Ireland. Backers there feel it provides an important economic and political safety net when jobs are not available after the training period.

Even if there is no firm prospect of a job at the end, Ray Hurst, Cleveland County's careers officer, maintains continued training is better ``than doing absolutely nothing at all.''

His experience shows that when the long-term unemployed become apathetic about job prospects, they withdraw and give up hope.

One of the major things going for the training program is the success it has had in building motivation.

Paula Muspratt, one of 5,100 who joined in Cleveland County (out of some 7,000 registered as unemployed here), has been transformed by the program.

Not only was she initially inhibited by her own lack of confidence, but she has an additional handicap: She's deaf.

As the program continues, though, and as she has developed skills and a sense of achievement, her own sense of worth has surged.

Says one of her instructors, Jenny Cheeseman, ``I can't explain the way she's come on. She's terrific. Her character is really coming out and I can now communicate with Paula through gestures.''

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