The jobless generation deserves better

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

Caroline Jenner, CEO of JA-YE Europe

Caroline Jenner, CEO of JA Europe.

While the EU holds yet another ‘special employment summit’ today in Milan, in Brussels the Commission fine-tunes its related departments and  priorities. Caroline Jenner argues that more change is required, chiefly between schools and companies, in the countries.

Caroline Jenner is CEO of JA-YE Europe, Europe’s largest provider of entrepreneurship education programmes. 

When Marianne Thyssen, the new Commissioner-designate for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility said in her Parliamentary hearing earlier this week that the links between education and employment have been going wrong, I couldn’t have agreed with her more.

In the old industrial world, we educated and trained people to plug into specific jobs. I worry that when Thyssen says ‘Education has to do with the labour market’ she is thinking in the same way. Students starting school now will be taking up careers and jobs that we struggle to define today, in industries of the future, or which are undergoing huge transformations today.

Young people need a modern curriculum that equips them with relevant skills. We must prepare them better for what is a very fast-paced, constantly changing labour market. This requires more than “slotting into a job”. The employers of today expect entrepreneurial people who can adapt well, innovate, collaborate effectively and be problem-solvers. 514 business leaders surveyed said what they thought students missed most were soft skills, entrepreneurial competences and business acumen.

There are huge opportunities for young people in the car, chemical, defence and construction sectors, designated as the top four EU strategic industries. However, neither Thyssen nor Bie?kowska, Commissioner-designate for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SME’s have explained how they will motivate young people to pursue careers that require strong science, tech, engineering or maths skills Bie?kowska suggested a “package of measures between universities and industry” was the solution, but that is likely too little too late. Young people need to be made aware of the exciting opportunities that await them in these fields much earlier in their school careers. Business-and-industry school partnerships should be an essential component of compulsory education.

This is what helps students see the relevance of what they are studying and what will encourage them to go further. Universities will only benefit from students who are making more informed educational choices.

The European Commission has said that every young person should have a practical entrepreneurial experience before they finish school. This is in response to a global economy which needs more job creators and more enterprising employees. Entrepreneurship education is seen as part of the solution because this is the kind of education that focuses on combining knowledge of maths, science, and language with idea-generation, business creation and organisation skills.

Business engagement is a must in this area, as they impart their experience and expertise. Entrepreneurship education has certainly moved up the priority list in recent years, but we are far from reaching ‘every young person’. In fact less than 10% of students in school today have access to entrepreneurship education and this amounts to less than 100 hours per student on average.  Even with this, we know that the impact on those young people is significant in terms of increased start-ups later on, and their job prospects. Imagine if we just doubled the number of hours from 100 to 200? Or if we increased the numbers accessing this education from 10% to 50%?  We know from research that this would mean tens of thousands more young people would leave school confident that they have the skills they need to be entrepreneurs or “intrapreneurs”.

Regrettably for today’s young people, the European Youth Guarantee scheme is an example of the EU throwing money at a problem to ease a symptom, rather than curing the cause. The Youth Guarantee has side-stepped engagement with education and in particular with entrepreneurship education. Why are we surprised that young people can’t find jobs, when they are being trained by an old style education system for jobs that will not exist anymore? It’s the education system that needs help, and in particular to increase uptake of entrepreneurship education strategies which we know can deliver the requisite skill set.

Young people are in the system for ten to twenty years and that’s where the money needs to be invested, especially at the upper secondary level but also at younger ages. Once they are outside the school system, the cost of action is much higher and impact harder to achieve and measure. The Youth Guarantee has been slow off the mark for this reason, and we are losing time in the fight against youth unemployment.

Similarly, the transfer of vocational education into DG EMPL is an indication of the wrong approach.  Instead, we need more employment expertise and more knowledge of business-education partnerships inside Education. Entrepreneurship is a transversal competence and should be broadly applied across vocational and academic education. Moreover, these “streams” should be less separate, a scenario which will only be perpetuated if vocational and educational training (VET) moves out of the building.  We need a system which offers more flexible learning pathways for young people.  

While education and curricula are the responsibility of national governments, the EU can play a strong role. It can adjust pan-European data and indicator surveys to help get the answers we need—it is already moving in this direction. Likewise, supporting research into impact and effectiveness of different measures is one way to help policy makers in their decision-making. In fields like entrepreneurship education which depends so much on community partnerships, the EU can also work more closely with trans-national networks which already have established links with Ministries to fund more teacher training and support measures. This will accelerate uptake and implementation at school level.

Young people will be best served by wiser investments and changes in education. Anything the EU can do to help national governments do this will have significant positive impact.    

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