Europe needs to “get the economy up and running” to help its youth find opportunities and bridge the gap between school and the workplace, the President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) Christa Schweng told EURACTIV in an interview.
“For me, it was always the magic wand that you need to do this transition from school from university to the real life. And I think there is a gap that needs to be closed,” said the Austrian chief of the 328 member-strong EU advisory body.
“And unfortunately, it’s also my feeling, this gap is widening because of this crisis,” she warned.
Schweng emphasised the crucial role traineeships and apprenticeships play in bridging the gap between school and employment.
“So what you always need is some sort of transition, the possibility to do internships in order to learn how work life really functions,” Schweng said.
However, with the recession caused by the COVID-19 crisis, enterprises are no longer able to offer these opportunities, which “is a major issue,” she warned. “We need to get the economy up and running. And then we will have also a solution for the labour market,” she said.
Young people have been disproportionately hit by the economic fallout from the pandemic. Youth unemployment stood at 15.4% across the EU in April 2020 but has already risen to 17.8% in December 2020. In contrast, the general unemployment rate rose only by 0.9% from a year ago.
To address this, the European Commission wants to focus on young people who are facing a “difficult period” during the social summit of EU leader taking place in Porto this May.
But according to Schweng, this crisis also holds an opportunity.
“I don’t want to be cynical, don’t get me wrong on that, but I think there is a certain chance also to deviate from what has been done so far and to try and focus now on more sustainable production and delivery of services.”
One such opportunity is to re-skill Europe’s workforce. According to the European Investment Bank’s 2020 investment report, 42% of the European population lack basic digital skills.
Nicolas Schmit, the EU’s employment and social rights commissioner, says EU countries should put a strong emphasis on investment in skills in their national recovery and resilience plans.
“We are working now with member states to make sure that upskilling and re-skilling is a top focus area,” he told lawmakers at the European Parliament’s plenary session on Monday.
According to Schweng, a key issue will be to combine short-term work schemes with training. “For me, this would be a very logical combination,” she said.
Another obstacle is labour market institutions, which have suffered badly from the crisis. “I think there are some improvements needed in not all member states, but in certain member states, for sure.”
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]