Helping young workers during the crisis: contributions by social partners and public authorities
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So far, governments have been key drivers in the implementation of initiatives to help young workers during the crisis. Active labour market policies (ALMPs) have been a feature of almost all EU Member States since 2008, with a notable increase in attempts to address the particular difficulties faced by young people in their labour market transitions.
Social partners are highly aware of the difficulties confronting young people, but collective bargaining mechanisms have played a very minor part in the response to the crisis for helping young workers. Social partnership mechanisms have also been under considerable strain and have collapsed in some countries (particularly those badly hit by the crisis), leaving the state as the main actor in this area.
Although young people face many labour market challenges and there is good evidence that these have increased as a result of the crisis, there are examples of good practice and innovation in helping young people make the transition into work, and secure work in particular. These initiatives require support and commitment from social partners and governments, but can be highly effective when appropriately targeted and supported.
Expanding training and apprenticeship opportunities is widely recognised as a generally effective measure to promote youth employment and develop work-relevant skills. In some countries, debate has emerged over the employment rights of young people engaged in internships and training. Many countries have increased the incentives for employers to offer vocational training placements and apprenticeships as a central strategy to helping young workers. Although some attention needs to be paid to ensuring there are appropriate job vacancies at the end of a period of training, most of the evaluation of the effectiveness of these programmes is very positive.
Nevertheless, it is recommended that Member States pay greater attention to evaluating all measures to support young workers. Particular issues might include evaluating whether the variety of schemes is appropriate (too many, too few?) to address the challenges facing young workers. It is also important that in countries where there have been new measures to help young workers as a direct result of the crisis that these programmes are evaluated within an appropriate time span.
There seems to be scope to explore further the particular impacts of the crisis on young workers with different levels of education, skills and training. Initial evaluation seems to indicate that this crisis is affecting young workers across a wide range of skills levels, which is a marked difference from the pre-2008 situation. If this pattern persists, it raises very considerable concern for the future integration of a wide range of young people into work and broadly into civil society.
There is important evidence from some national contexts (notably Ireland) that lessons from previous periods of high unemployment, economic crisis and recession indicate that prevention is better than cure in relation to disadvantaged groups in the labour market. In other words, ensuring that disadvantaged groups (including young people) have appropriate skills before a crisis hits helps to mitigate the worst effects of crisis on them as a group.
It is also important that ALMPs are coordinated to provide extended support for young workers at different stages of their training and labour market transitions, rather than piecemeal and fragmented. This emerges as a particular concern, for example, after the end of apprenticeships or training programmes. Support to provide high-quality opportunities for people who have received training is crucial to avoid them having to move out of the labour market or into low-skill, poor-quality, precarious jobs. Similarly, ensuring that support for the long-term unemployed does not just cease at the end of a particular programme is essential.
The danger of responding in a crisis situation is that labour market interventions may stand at odds to other policies such as taxation, education or social welfare. Priority should be given to policies that deliver labour market policy objectives. Providing robust support for apprenticeship programmes seems a particularly effective policy for young people because they have the dual benefit of both developing the work appropriate skills so needed by employers, while also developing and providing opportunities for young people. The national economy is also likely to benefit if such initiatives take place on a wide scale because of a general tendency to upskill the workforce.
This report also highlights an interesting and important tension in state policies where pressures to help young workers’ transitions into (secure) work need to be balanced against pressures to extend the working lives of older workers through the removal of compulsory retirement ages. In several countries, it is clear that there is a more lively debate about the position of older workers in the labour market than younger ones. There seems a strong case for governments and social partners to recognise the intersecting debates about the challenges facing young workers and those facing older workers. Although the economics of job creation are no means linear or simple, it seems evident that there is at least the potential that an extension of working life through the removal or raising of the compulsory retirement age may have unforeseen consequences for some young workers. Attention must be paid to evaluating policy developments in this area in relation to its effects across labour markets.
Overall, governments’ policies towards young workers have tended to emphasise the importance of getting young people into work, no matter the quality of the jobs available. Comparatively little emphasis has been placed on concerns over the impact of precarious work on young people. Indeed, in some countries, governments have chosen to remove or reduce employment protections for young workers so as to increase hiring opportunities. This is a point of serious concern in the long-term. There is a danger of creating and deepening divisions between generations and of young people being disproportionately disadvantaged as a consequence of the crisis. The insecurity associated with precarious work sets up the very real possibility that problematic early experiences of work may feed through into reduced opportunities later in life and again raises the danger of disengaging young people from civil society.
The impact of austerity measures on programmes to support young workers is clearly of concern across Member States. However, some initiatives require comparatively little direct funding. For example, it is still possible even in times of fiscal challenge to promote efforts to:
- create more effective links between employers and schools;
- increase the educational attainment of young people while in statutory education;
- reduce drop-out rates from statutory education.
Melanie Simms, IRRU, University of Warwick
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