From education to employment

Europe’s talking about youth unemployment… But are we?

You may be forgiven for not knowing this.  European political, financial and business  leaders met last week at the Europe: Next Steps conference to discuss youth unemployment and  agree some policy steers to address the issue across the region.  The cast list was impressive and included the heads of state of France, Italy and Spain (Hollande, Monti and Rajoy), German Finance Minister Wofgang Shaeuble and Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen and the heads of the European Investment Bank and the World Trade Organisation, amongst numerous others.

Youth unemployment is now at the top, or near the top, of the political and economic agenda in the Eurozone.  However while our continental partners make plans, including how to allocate  a pot of funding of 6 billion Euros set aside to address youth employment issues in the period 2014-20,  we appear to be remaining on the sidelines.  Why?  Clearly part of the reason must be that we are outside the Eurozone.  Part of it is probably that we are reluctant to recognise that the EU has authority on this (it doesn’t have “competence” on labour market policy, in the EU jargon).  But part of it is also likely to be that with so many different government departments involved, and so little co-ordination, we simply struggle to speak with one voice on youth unemployment – at home or abroad.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to see where the final responsibility for youth employment lies in the UK.  As our “fragmentation analysis” last year set out we have policy and programmes  emanating from DoE, BIS, Cabinet Office, DCLG and DWP as well as local initiatives and ESF-funded programmes but who is coordinating it all and from where?

There’s a laudable exception in the Scottish Parliament where Angela Constance holds the portfolio of Youth Employment Minister and new Junior Education Shadow Minister Tristram Hunt appears to have taken on the opposition responsibility for youth employment.  But it’s unclear who in the Coalition ministerial team has  the final say on what’s going to work most effectively for the long term prospects of our young people and the impact that must have for the  turn around of UK plc?

There wasn’t any “silver bullet” last week.  European leaders  acknowledged youth unemployment as an urgent priority and came up with limited though sensible proposals. As well as  the German Finance  and Labour ministers urging  the conference to make good use of the available EU funds, including the aforementioned 6 billion euros (5.1 billion pounds) ring-fenced for youth employment, there was also agreement that there should be a focus on encouraging SMEs to take on young recruits.  Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble also spoke of the need to preserve Europe’s welfare model. If U.S. welfare standards were introduced in Europe, “we would have revolution, not tomorrow, but on the very same day,” he told the conference.

What was agreed was that the youth employment crisis will be a central theme at the  June EU leaders’ summit on 28 June.  As an indication of the seriousness that Germany takes its own youth unemployment (low by European standards at 8%) and the wider European picture (23.6% European average, with Greece at 64% and Spain more than 50%) Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, invited EU labour ministers to a youth unemployment conference in Berlin on July 3, timed presumably to align with Skills Ministers’ trips to  support their Apprentices  at World Skills in Leipzig that same week.

UK ministers  should be encouraged to contribute  to these events. Failing   to do so would suggest  a  blinkered response to arguably the biggest social problem facing Europe and the UK.  Not least there are some myths that need to be busted about what has worked and what hasn’t  and lessons to be shared  about how limited funds can be most appropriately invested, and how not. This will all necessitate a level of candour that it would be refreshing to see.

It’s clear the EU wants to prioritise youth employment and to fund member states to test new approaches.  There’s a huge opportunity here  for the UK Government and for individual Local Authorities to harness this to innovate and evaluate new approaches.   The big irony – and imperative – is that while we’re at the leading edge internationally in running active labour market programmes, we are near the bottom of the class on youth unemployment. So, it could be argued that we have things to learn from our European colleagues, much to contribute and certainly nothing to lose from being at the party.

Fran Parry is director of employment and skills at Inclusion, the not-for-profit company dedicated to tackling disadvantage and promoting social justice

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