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Allan Päll: Bridging the Gap — Education and Employment in Europe

Some people say that we are post-crisis, but years after the crisis has supposedly ended, with a youth unemployment rate in the EU of 21.6 percent of — and in many countries, that already high statistic is much higher — there appears to be no end in sight for young people that cannot find secure jobs of good quality.

 

Clearly, there are wide macroeconomic issues at play here and, so far, politicians’ responses to the crisis have been lacklustre and have often made life worse for Europe’s young people. There are, however, positive steps that can be taken by employers, education providers (formal and non-formal) and youth organisations to counteract this trend.

These days, “youth” cannot be easily pinpointed as a distinct age group, rather, it is a stage of life: that key transition from childhood to adulthood, a process of becoming autonomous. But at the moment, that stage is precarious and difficult to navigate. The well-trodden path from education to employment is no longer a smooth one. Tackling the broad issue of building a good economy that creates quality jobs will drive long-term growth; only then can we assure sustainable jobs for young people.

In addition, there are two key areas where there is huge scope for bridging the gap between education and employment: good quality internships, which include work-based learning and enhanced and better-recognised non-formal education.

The “skills mismatch” is often cited as a problem when it comes to employing young people. By this, it is meant that young people are not leaving formal education with the kinds of skills needed by employers. Even if new jobs are created by a better economy, for young people, the issue of transition and access to jobs will still be crucial, even more so amongst disadvantaged groups. That is why we need continuous and rigorous attention to improving and providing good quality internship and apprenticeship programmes.

Internships are too often of poor quality, unpaid and, rather than being a learning opportunity and thus a stepping-stone to a good job, they actually replace real jobs. If an internship is not part of a young person’s studies or does not have defined learning content whatsoever, furthermore they are not paid for the work that they do, isn’t that simply exploitation — a modern form of slave labour? On the other hand, internships can be, and in many cases are, a great experience and offer a real opportunity of advancing into the working world.

Employers must recognise their responsibility to provide internship and apprenticeship experiences that are educational and fairly paid and open up such experiences to all young people. This is win-win: young people have access to an invaluable working experience and they are a great resource for employers, who can capture their skills and make them an asset to the organisation. The European Youth Forum is working with a group of employers to produce an employer’s guide for quality internships that provide a good learning experience for young people.

As well as such “formal” experiences, which should help ease the transition into work, employers need to, and increasingly already do, recognise the wide range of skills that young people gain through non-formal education. For example, being involved with a youth organisation, young people develop their “soft skills,” which can directly lead to work. Soft skills might actually be a misnomer, and the term belies the importance of such skills, which are vital to employers and enhance employability. Young people involved in a youth organisation can gain communication and interpersonal skills, as well as realising the importance of commitment and responsibility. Many learn about conflict resolution, leadership, management, planning, problem-solving and working as part of a team. All of these skills are highly valued in the work place, and it is a great shame that such experiences are not always properly recognised. Of course, non-formal education must also be of good quality, and that is why we have developed a quality assurance framework for non-formal education providers to improve that experience.

At the same time, young people who have gained these types of skills through, for example, working for and with young people, need to be able to make themselves attractive for potential employers and explain the skills they have. A traditional, and often organisationally focused, linear CV does not cut it anymore. Better guidance for relating actual experiences and skills in the recruitment process is therefore crucial. The onus is also on youth organisations and employers to work more closely together for this.

Of course, employers and young people alone cannot solve all issues related to being in the stuck in limbo between education and work, which is an every day reality for far too many young people. There needs to be a much clearer political recognition for linking economic governance and wellbeing. We thus call on European leaders to deliver on the rhetoric that they care about the younger generation and invest in quality jobs and measures to help to get young people into sustainable work.

Top image: Courtesy of Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

Allan Päll is Secretary General of the European Youth Forum.

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