Helping disengaged young people in times of pandemic

Young people attend a videoconference. [Shutterstock]

A Europe-wide project launched in 2018 was already helping disengaged young citizens to find training and jobs when the COVID-19 outbreak started, rendering the programme more difficult but also more necessary than ever.

According to Eurostat, 16.5% of Europeans between 20 and 34 years are NEETs, an acronym referring to those who are Neither in Employment, Education or Training. Spain, Italy, Romania and Bulgaria are particularly hit by this phenomenon. 

To help young people in those countries find a professional path or even start their own business, the education-oriented organisation Junior Achievement  Europe launched a project in 2018 targeting 1,600 NEETs in these four countries. 

The project’s goal was to provide those people with entrepreneurial education, pieces of training and support for them to acquire the skills needed either to find a job or become entrepreneurs.

The COVID-19 outbreak, which has heavily affected the participant countries, especially Italy and Spain, has created challenges and opportunities for the project, which seems more needed than ever as Europe finds itself on the brink of a socio-economic crisis. 

An opportunity out of the crisis

Alessandro Constanzo de Castro is the project manager of the programme in Italy. He explained to EURACTIV that the health emergency in the country had forced JA to quickly switch to an online version of the activities scheduled. 

The innovation camps that were foreseen for the next few months have been transformed into webinars whose goal is to prepare the students to launch their own businesses. On the bright side, as the courses are now online, restrictions on the number of participants or the territorial constraints have disappeared, widening the scope of action of the project. 

“NEETs are difficult to find and even more difficult to engage,” Constanzo de Castro explained, but by going online and due to the perception of a socio-economic crisis in the making, “it is much easier to spread the news and enrol people.” 

However, the project also contemplates an intensive five-day, full time, leadership programme that it is impossible to organise under current circumstances. “In the webinars, we teach how to be an entrepreneur; in the leadership programme, we develop the skills to become one,” Constanzo de Castro explained. 

“I can teach you how to develop a business plan, but I cannot work on your dreams, on your skills, on your qualities, on your fears… this cannot be done online,” he added. The goal though remains to go back to live meetings in September, if the situation allows. 

'NEETs': A youth group at high risk of poverty and exclusion

Education and skills gaps are not only a challenge for businesses seeking to recruit, they also make poverty and social exclusion more likely among young people who are excluded from labour and education at the same time. 

The challenges of going online

JA Spain is working to support NEETs getting ready to access the labour market, building their own business, but also to help those who are at risk of becoming disengaged stay on track as well. 

The challenges to keep up with the programme in the country were similar. Most of the activities have gone online but others, such as traineeships, guided visits to companies or one-on-one tutorials, have had to be postponed.

Moreover, some of the participants, in a particularly precarious situation, are struggling to get the necessary equipment and internet connection to participate in the webinars at the beginning, admitted Miryam Díaz, project manager of the programme in Spain. 

But on the other hand, “the use of digital platforms has allowed us to reach out to people who did not know about us,” she explained, including with young Spanish migrants abroad. “The most important thing is being able to identify their needs and be flexible enough to adapt to them,” Díaz added.

One of the goals of the programme is for at least ten participants to launch their business. Now, they are in the process of brainstorming but they aim to provide them with advice and a small capital injection to turn the ideas into actual projects. 

“We want to empower them so that they believe they can do it,” explained Javier Samaran, programmes director at JA Spain.

They admit it is difficult know to what extent the pandemic has affected their work, and whether participants are more anxious about their future or less motivated in view of the deteriorating economic situation.

However, Díaz pointed out that it is a good moment to talk about these initiatives and explain that free tools are available for young people to bring themselves up to date precisely at a time when finding a job can become a little more difficult. 

“It was very difficult at the very beginning to find a way to develop this projects,” Alessandro Constanzo de Castro said but added they had “the chance to create an opportunity out of the crisis” and build something good for these young people in particular, and the society as a whole.

Commission warns against the risk of the COVID19 becoming a social crisis

The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has hit the European economy hard, but not equally across all countries and sectors, and the fragmentation could lead to a social crisis, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit warned on Wednesday (20 May). 

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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