Young people’s transition to work – a world full of options, but few opportunities?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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[Goethe-Institut]

This article is part of our special report Improving young people’s job prospects in the wake of COVID-19.

At the beginning of the year, when the revision of the EU Youth Guarantee was being prepared, unemployment rates had been slowly but steadily decreasing for years. The policy instrument that would provide offers to young people who are not in education, employment or training had to be updated, improved, but there was little momentum and less political interest.

By Jan Wilker and Gesa Spätling on behalf of the StartNet Project at the Goethe-Institut Brüssel.

Even if the EU-average of youth unemployment was still twice as high than general unemployment, the phenomena seemed to have developed into a rather regional issue, with Southern European areas at rates still above 40% and more long-term youth unemployment, but these regions and these young people were much less audible.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic stroke. Young people’s education was interrupted. A predominantly young workforce with precarious work contracts in the service sector was quickly laid off and youth unemployment rates quickly started to ramp up as during the previous crisis. Are we heading towards another lost generation? Will we have many more young people in Europe, who cannot start their careers, their autonomous lives, who risk to loose trust in themselves, in society and politics?

Europe cannot afford another lost generation with fatal long-term consequences, exclusion, poverty and conflict. And we can prevent it, if we mobilise the necessary resources and knowledge available. Finally, the reinforced Youth Guarantee presented on the 1st of July comes at a key moment for Europe and its young people.

In 2014, when the EU Youth Guarantee was first launched, its implementation across member states of the EU varied a lot, quality offers were rare and most deprived young people had not been reached. Since then, significant improvements have been made. Today, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have new enormous challenges for our education systems and labour markets, but also a unique opportunity for structural changes between these two worlds and positive long-lasting effects.

The increasing discrepancy between education and working life is often too much of a hurdle, in particular for disadvantaged young people. They easily drop out or get lost in a world full of options, but rare in real opportunities. How can we bridge this gap? How can we secure young people’s transition to work? Considering also other pressing societal issues such as climate change, how can we support an inclusive and green recovery in Europe, fuelled by an adequately skilled young workforce?

Bridging the gap between education and work is extremely difficult, as it involves various sectors and stakeholders. Schools, universities, employers, public employment services, trade unions, the social sector and young people themselves – they all have to be engaged and need to cooperate. Together they can create a comprehensive support system that guides and empowers young people on their educational and vocational pathway. This cooperation needs to happen from the local to the European level, in the political and practical sphere.

Such is the experience of the StartNet project, which operates at these cross-roads. Firstly, a multi-stakeholder network in Southern Italy co-creates and implements activities for young people’s school-to-work transition. Secondly, a European network exchanges good-practices among 17 partners from 12 countries, builds partnerships and connects policy to practice. StartNet does not aim to be another flagship project to instruct others, contributing to a further fragmented landscape. On the contrary, it aims to empower and connect existing initiatives locally and across Europe.

Experience taught us, that cooperation between schools and employers, continuous career guidance, internships, apprenticeships and vocational education are extremely beneficial to young people, who will study more purposefully and who will be better prepared for their future. Such cross-sectoral education and training shall empower, provide life skills, encourage entrepreneurship, creativity and active citizenship. As a result, it will enable young people to face the challenges of today and tomorrow on the labour market and in life.

So how do we get it right and use the momentum of the reinforced Youth Guarantee to respond to this unprecedented shock of COVID-19 for our economies and education systems?

The proposed policies are going in the right direction. They aim to be more inclusive by targeting specifically both long-term and short-term unemployed of a broader age group, and reinforce career guidance, vocational education and training. However, they need to be underpinned by the necessary funding to have a transformative impact. The 22 billion Euro claimed by the European Commission are a minimum that will not permit to reach all young people in need it and the amount is well below the long-term cost to our societies and economies, if we do not manage to respond adequately. The ESF+ foresees only limited earmarking and both the EU and its member states need to make investment in youth a priority in their respective budgets and recovery plans.

Moreover, member states need to embrace the structural change of these processes during the implementation. All sectors need to be involved to jointly create the strategies, the offers and tailored activities that will best support young people in their specific context. As StartNet describes in its recently produced manual, multi-stakeholder networks are not easy to set up, but permit a sustainable collective impact.

The StartNet-Conference on 30 September, which builds on 3 years of experience, is a contribution towards this cross-sectoral cooperation. It gathers policy-makers and practitioners from the regional to the European level. It aims to spread innovative practices and ambitious policies for young people’s #TransitionToWork. It is also a call to join forces, because we cannot afford to wait any longer. Europe cannot afford another lost generation, it needs to act now.

StartNet is a project of the Goethe-Institut and Stiftung Mercator.

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