This article is part of our special report Improving young people’s job prospects in the wake of COVID-19.
While impacting all parts of the economy, COVID-19 has hit young people particularly hard. Commissioner Nicolas Schmit spoke with EURACTIV about the EU executive’s efforts to address these challenges and avert the prospect of another ‘lost generation.’
Nicolas Schmit is the European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights.
High levels of youth unemployment could lead to more people taking on underpaying jobs with no benefits or internships just to have some type of employment. How does the Commission intend to address this problem?
For now, what we are seeing is that people in precarious and temporary contracts are the first ones to lose their jobs. As businesses start hiring again, we may be confronted with the problem of low-quality jobs as well. The Commission is determined to stop this from happening.
We have already put forward several initiatives that aim to support workers – and employers – to face the challenges ahead.
In July, we presented the Youth Employment Support (YES) package, which aims to give young people all possible opportunities to thrive by reinforcing the already successful Youth Guarantee. We are also renewing the European Alliance for Apprenticeships that has so far brought over 900,000 apprenticeship opportunities.
Later this month, the Commission will adopt a proposal for fair minimum wages. In-work poverty is a major problem in the EU. People earning the minimum wage should be able to afford a decent living, and that is our objective with this framework. If we invest in people, we will also see a rise in productivity. So it’s not only a social issue, but it makes economic sense.
We are also working to address precarious employment. Two years from now, EU law will give completely new rights to the most precarious workers. On-demand workers will, for instance, have the right to know within which time slots they can be called to work, and have a right to compensation if an employer cancels a work assignment on short notice.
The Commission’s changes in the reinforced Youth Guarantee have been well-received, but there have been some concerns about a lack of awareness, which could lead to only the privileged and well-informed having access to it. How is the Commission working to raise awareness of the programme?
I agree that we need to do more to communicate about the opportunities available under the Youth Guarantee. This is something that we are doing at EU-level, but of course, the most effective outreach is done at national and local level. In the reinforced Youth Guarantee, outreach is the first action. This is particularly important because it addresses the difficulties of vulnerable groups among young people.
One issue is that the Youth Guarantee is an EU policy framework, and the national schemes under it can have another name. So we recommend using a recognisable visual style in national communications.
We also suggest countries use modern, youth-friendly and local information channels – such as social media – and involve young people and local youth organisations in the planning and delivery of Youth Guarantee schemes.
A popular addition to the reinforced Youth Guarantee is extending eligibility from 25 to 29 years old. However, how is the EU helping those who have aged out of the Youth Guarantee but are still young in their careers and have faced two major economic crises with 2008 and now the pandemic?
We have indeed extended the age bracket of the Youth Guarantee. This is crucial as during the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a bigger share of 25 to 29 year-olds will fall into unemployment and require support. The Youth Guarantee must be our net to catch the more vulnerable young people.
However, the Youth Guarantee is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many activation schemes in member states which don’t have an age limit. The support does not end at 30! The European SURE instrument is helping member states keep people in jobs, and is very relevant for junior professionals who might be laid off more quickly.
People who are reorienting their careers, by choice or by necessity, will also benefit from our new Skills Agenda, which provides information on which skills are in demand and helps people build their skills. It also launches a Pact for Skills which takes real action to upskill and reskill by setting up partnerships between companies, social partners, and other actors.
The Commission’s proposal also discusses addressing gender disparities in employment. It has a particular focus on communications to combat gender stereotyping to empower women to expand their career and education choices. Do you also intend to extend the scope of the causes of gender disparities to address ingrained structural issues, such as “boy clubs” in workplaces or a lack of affordable childcare?
Many structural challenges are holding women back in the labour market, and it is important we address those urgently. This is why under the reinforced Youth Guarantee we recommend to address gender stereotyping in educational and career choices. Young women and men should be encouraged to consider a wider choice of education paths and occupations.
In March, the Commission adopted a robust and ambitious Gender Equality Strategy. This strategy is even more relevant today in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. Addressing gender inequalities and stereotypes in the labour market and in care are important priorities set out in the Strategy.
Women are still more likely to take up caring responsibilities than men and having a child translates into lower employment rates for women and not for men. The EU Work-Life Balance Directive provides for rights on paternity leave, parental leave, carers’ leave and flexible work. The Commission calls upon the EU countries to go beyond these minimum standards.
Similarly, the proposal also highlights that it will combat discrimination against disadvantaged groups like racial and ethnic minorities or those with disabilities. Does this include addressing structural concerns such as inequitable outcomes in education?
Discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities is not acceptable, and we have to do our utmost to combat it on many different levels. One good way to do it is by guaranteeing equal access to quality education for all. There have been many education and training reforms in recent years.
All people with disabilities have the right to inclusive education, and COVID-19 has particularly affected learners with disabilities. The Commission is taking action through the current and future Disability Strategy to support member states in providing inclusive and accessible education and training.
EU law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation on the grounds of disability and age. Legislation on accessibility was also put in place recently to make many everyday products and services accessible to people with disabilities.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]