EU tools offer only minor relief to youth unemployment
The EU's "Youth on the Move" strategy to combat soaring youth unemployment across the continent offers a few practical tools, but the main responsibility still lies with national governments currently distracted by attempts to cap budget deficits.
Some five million Europeans under 25 years of age have been unable to find a job this year, an overall increase of one million since the financial and economic crisis struck in 2008.
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Worst hit are Spain, with just over 40 percent youth unemployment, and the three Baltic countries, hovering a little under the 40 percent mark. Only Germany, Austria and Norway have rates below 10 percent, while Denmark is also faring relatively well in the first half of this year with 11-12 percent.
In response to this stagnation, the European Commission on 15 September launched an initiative called "Youth on the Move", aimed at helping youngsters find a job in another EU country and get advice about start-up loans for their own businesses and projects.
Part of the EU's so-called 2020 Agenda, a project aimed at boosting the economy through green and hi-tech jobs, the initiative proposes 28 key actions designed to link education and training to the labour market and encourage young people to take advantage of EU grants to study or train in another country.
Future jobs will increasingly require high-skills. The commission estimates that 35 percent of jobs will require higher- and 50 percent medium-level education. So early school drop-outs represent a serious problem for reaching the 2020 goals.
Through Youth on the Move, the EU aims to reduce the share of early school leavers from 15 to 10 percent and increase the share of young people with tertiary education or the equivalent from 31 percent to at least 40 percent by 2020.
But since labour law and education policies are exclusively a competence of national and regional governments, the EU's room for manoeuvre is necessarily limited. It can only "encourage" and assist member states in dealing with youth unemployment.
Among the measures envisaged at EU level is a new online register with European job vacancies, more financial support for young entrepreneurs under the "European micro-finance facility" and a European skills passport to allow skills to be recorded in a transparent and comparable way.
The pass proposal was met with little enthusiasm by European small and medium enterprises, who already use the Europass – a streamlined European CV template which focuses on additional training and work experience.
"We already have Europass, it is a very useful tool for employers, so we don't understand what this skills passport should be about. Will it replace Europass, will it be something in addition? The details are not very clear," Liliane Volozinskis from UEAPME, the European craft and SME employer's umbrella organisation said.
Overall, the Youth on the Move initiative should be welcomed for finally linking education and labour market demands, something SMEs have long been asking for. But, said Ms Volozinski, it is wrong to portray flexible working contracts in a negative light. There are a "real stepping stone" for youngsters and a chance to fight unemployment.
More regulation around work contracts is not the way to increase employment, she said. The focus should rather be on matching vocational education, training and university degrees with the demands of the labour market.
Germany, Austria, Denmark are all countries where the "dual model" of having university courses linked to an apprenticeship in a company or the public sector is, in her opinion, the reason why these countries have low youth unemployment.
Newer member states, such as Poland and Hungary, are currently also "rediscovering apprenticeships," she said, as they are struggling with a huge skills mismatch between theoretical studies-oriented youngsters and a high demand for practical skills.
The success of the dual model in Denmark should not be "romanticised", however, says Danish Green MEP Emilie Turunen. One downside to it is that due to the crisis, companies refuse apprentices, meaning that youngsters cannot finish their studies.
Aged 26, Ms Turunen is the youngest MEP and author of a report about youth uneployment adopted on 6 July. She says the commission's scheme is "one step out of many", but a welcomed one, particularly for having included the "youth guarantee" she recommended. Under this provision, member states should adopt measures ensuring that youngsters do not stay unemployed for more than four months before they get further training or a proper job.
A quality framework for traineeships – something pushed for by both Ms Turunen and the EU commission – is aimed at preventing unpaid internships from replacing real jobs and creating a "precarious youth labour market."
"What we need now is for all governments to commit to this agenda. They have the main competences and we need them involved, because fighting youth unemployment is a strategic priority for the EU. We can't afford, socially and economically, to lose a generation," Ms Turunen said.
This article was previously published in AnalysNorden, the Nordic Council of Ministers' online news magazine.