Retail does a lot for youth unemployment, but now it needs to do even more, says Mark Price

Retail does a lot for youth unemployment, but now it needs to do even more, says Mark Price.

I’m always fascinated to see our customers willingly add several minutes to their shopping trip. They take their Community Matters green token at the checkout and then ponder which of three local good causes should be the recipient – and get a share of the £1,000-a month each shop distributes in proportion to the tokens received.

Those few moments of consideration symbolise the innate care and concern most people have for their local communities. That’s why, along with anger and frustration, “depressing” was a frequently expressed reaction to the riots that shamed the streets of our towns and cities last week. But it also explains the positive response in the days following the unrest as people came together to clear up and to support each other.

Business in the Community was created after the inner-city disturbances of the early 1980s. Over the past 30 years member companies have worked to break down barriers and work together to transform local areas – the retail sector is notable for its contribution, with businesses such as B&Q, Greggs, Boots, M&S and Sainsbury’s all running innovative programmes that make a real difference. 

The need for business to contribute to the greater good of our wider society is as great now as it ever was – if not greater. Of course the responsibility for the mayhem we saw last week cannot simply be dumped on ‘dispossessed youth’. 

But the fact is that one in five young people in this country does not have a job and, as a consequence, can lack the structure, sense of obligation and meaning that work brings to our lives.

I know many in our industry are already making immense efforts to give real support to enable youngsters to find their way into the world of work. Apprenticeships, work experience, volunteering, mentoring and training schemes abound. But – and I know this isn’t easy if your business suffered badly as a result of the disorder – we all must think about what more we can do alongside Government and voluntary organisations.    

The estimated £8bn cost to the nation of youth unemployment is only part of the story – we cannot afford to waste the talents, hopes and dreams of such a big proportion of our young at such a critical time in their lives. As we have seen, the impact of allowing this situation to continue can affect us all: as employers, suppliers, customers, parents, friends or neighbours. 

One of the most startling attitudes to come through from those involved in the disturbances is a lack of understanding of the value to their communities of the very businesses they were trying to destroy. Without a broad mix of local enterprise, where will the opportunities come to allow people to break out of the poverty trap?

We, as business leaders, need to make sure that the value of a vibrant local economy is much more widely understood as a force for good and social cohesion.

We must act quickly and decisively for the good not only of our own communities but to restore the image of the UK around the world.

  • Mark Price is MD of Waitrose and chairman of Business in the Community