NEW figures reveal a staggering 788,000 young people in the UK are out of education and unemployed, an increase of 31,000 since September.
Some 21,000 of the 788,000 total are in Northern Ireland – 10 per cent of all boys and girls between the ages of 16 and 24.
Despite steady progress since 2015, which has seen these numbers fall by 8,000, in my mind 21,000 young people out of work and education is 21,000 too many. And it is time we stepped up our efforts to bring this number down lower still.
One major challenge is that we are trapped in political and economic limbo. Our politicians at Stormont are conspicuous by their absence – leaving us rudderless in uncertain times. The Brexit saga rumbles on, festering nervousness and continued division.
But for everyday men and women, life continues. Whatever the failures of our politicians here or in Westminster, the daily battle to put food on the table and secure a better, more prosperous future goes on.
And so it is up to us, the people and businesses of Northern Ireland, to take the lead.
Firms like Finnebrogue – the artisan food business I founded in 1985 – must set a course through potentially choppy waters, seizing the opportunities and mitigating the risks.
One of our overarching priorities will always be people. People are the lifeblood of any business and young people are the future; the leaders of tomorrow.
We currently employ 460 people at our base in County Down, a number that is only set to rise. As we continue our extraordinary growth built on the foundations of world-beating innovation, we are making an extra effort to re-engage with those local young people who have found their start in life a rocky one.
I know what it’s like to leave school with no qualifications. I was excluded at 15 – and some people at that stage would have thrown my future on the scrapheap. Academia hadn’t got on with me – and I certainly hadn’t got on with it.
But five decades on, a few business ventures later and many bumps along the way, I can now say I am very proud of what I’ve achieved. My business sustains hundreds of livelihoods, produces some of the best food anywhere in the world and is a fun and stimulating place to work.
People all develop at different stages. Many of us were disruptive children. Others had challenging upbringings.
But no matter where you’ve come from, if you are willing to work hard, learn, apply yourself and are determined to build a better future for you and your family, there should always be opportunities for you.
A childhood misdemeanour, an inability to master trigonometry nor a hatred of Shakespearean literature should not condemn you to a life of under-performance, underpaid work or a continued period on the dole.
At Finnebrogue, we are determined to attract the finest talent, the academic high-achievers and the high flying graduates, but we also want to unlock the local non-academic talent that has been wasted for so long.
Because if you try hard, businesses like Finnebrogue can help you develop the leadership qualities, the communication skills, the ability to work as a team and a whole raft of other qualities that can help you thrive – no matter what your background or what few life chances your teachers predicted for you.
My detractors will tell me that the majority of those 21,000 young boys and girls in Northern Ireland, currently condemned to weeks upon weeks of daytime television, a barren bank balance and a feeling that life has left them behind, are too lazy, too hopeless and too work-shy to succeed.
I couldn’t disagree more. I know what it’s like to be a kid daunted by the world in front of me – and I know that every single one of them has some burning desire inside them.
It’s just up to businesses like mine to offer some light at the end of the tunnel – and unlock their potential.
Denis Lynn is chairman of Finnebrogue Artisan