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Daniel Wainwright

Here’s looking at you, kids: An international perspective on youth unemployment

Authors: Daniel Wainwright Dan Wainwright

29 January 2013

Europe is facing a crisis of youth unemployment according to  Mr. Stefano Scarpetta, Deputy Director of Employment, Labour, and Social Affairs at the OECD, at a recent conference organised by The Work Foundation. Despite some recent progress, youth unemployment is too high and falling too slowly. Given the well-documented costs to the individual (wage scarring, welfare dependency, mental and physical health) and to society (wasted potential, lower productivity, public finance drain), it’s not surprising that supporting unemployed young people into work is a priority for governments across Europe.

A new report from The Work Foundation, International Lessons: Youth unemployment in the global context, draws on in depth case-studies of four countries to suggest what a robust policy response could look like in the UK. Germany, which has the lowest youth unemployment rate across Europe (it has actually fallen since the start of the recession), has put apprenticeships front and centre. Their highly successful dual apprenticeship system provides high quality training, excellent corporate links and recognised, well-regarded qualifications, and is an excellent model of how to provide young people with the skills they need in the labour market.

One country taking note is Scotland. At the conference, Ms Angela Constance, Minister for Youth Employment in Scotland, explained how Holyrood’s youth employment strategy is fostering closer links between education and work. 2012 saw 26,427 apprenticeship places delivered, and the status as fully employed has helped turn short term training into sustainable jobs. Ms Constance also outlined how the creation of her role just over a year ago – the first of its kind in the UK – has given an unrelenting focus on getting young people into work. It’s now a standing item at cabinet meetings, and Ms Constance has been able to mobilise resources and work across government to deliver results.

Ms Joanneke Balfoot, Head of Economics at the Dutch Embassy, spoke about the vital role Netherland’s Universities of Applied Sciences have played in bringing down the youth unemployment rate there. The prestige of a technical education encourages young people to see it as an attractive and viable route into meaningful work. Ms Balfoot also argued that Netherland’s increasing focus on preventing school drop outs would help bring youth unemployment down even further. Having found strong evidence that children who completed school fared better in the labour market, the government is throwing its weight behind programmes to keeping them in school. This might look promising for the imminent rise of the compulsory participation age in the UK, but Mr Scarpetta rightly warned against presuming that this would solve the problem – rather, he said, it might simply kick it down the road.

All were agreed, though, that a holistic provision of services was crucial, and that early intervention had an important role to people in returning people to work. The Danish system, which focuses on reintegrating young people into education, is especially relevant in the current low-growth climate – by building the skills and confidence of those out of work, it ensures they are in an excellent position to capitalise when growth returns.

The UK could clearly benefit from drawing on the experience of its European neighbours such as engaging large employers in apprenticeships, and increasing their academic content; intervening as soon as young people drop out of education or work; enabling (and funding) local authorities to deliver a holistic, wrap around service. These are all practical measures that would help support those struggling to find their way in an increasingly complicated and competitive labour market. Done well, they could not only have a significant immediate impact, but help the UK move to an economy where young people start their working lives with the skills, knowledge and support they need to thrive.

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