• Insights

Youth skills on the agenda

Young people were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and many are still paying the price, whether in or out of work. It is hoped that a renewed focus on skills will help equip more to catch up and to thrive.

Young people’s work prospects were hit particularly hard during the pandemic. Lockdowns, business closures and hiring freezes made finding a job difficult, and, in many cases, put lives on hold. For those in education, drops in family incomes combined with a widespread move to distance learning reduced options and opportunities. According to the International Labour Organization, 282 million young people were not in education or employment in 2020, and between 2019 and 2020, youth unemployment increased by some 34 million globally. Those affected now face significant disadvantages in accessing quality employment, and while there are signs of things improving in developed countries, lower and middle income countries continue to lag behind.

In addressing these disadvantages, skills have an important role to play. 15 July is World Youth Skills Day, with this year’s edition focusing on ‘skilling teachers, trainers and youth for a transformative future’. World Youth Skills day has been observed since 2014, following a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, and aims to draw attention to the importance of training young people to prepare them for a prosperous future as individuals, entrepreneurs and in their communities.

This year’s edition of World Youth Skills days also falls during what the European Commission has declared to be the European Year of Skills, and against a backdrop of skills shortages around the world. With major disruptions to labour markets on the horizon, improving skills for workers of all ages is seen as an increasingly important policy priority. With better skills, it is hoped, workers will be better placed to navigate the green and technological transitions, and to move from school to the world of work. It is also hoped that a better skills offering might increase labour market participation.

The European Union has identified four priorities in this area. The first of these is an increased investment in training, including reskilling, ‘to harness the full potential of the European workforce’, and to provide support to those wishing to—or forced to—move between jobs or industries. The next is to ensure that the training being undertaken and the skills acquired correspond to labour market needs, including by promoting dialogue between policymakers, trade unions, industry groups and businesses. Two further priorities concern bringing new workers into the European labour market, targeting economically inactive people already in the EU, and skilled workers from third countries. While few concrete legislative measures have been proposed at EU level, significant (though mostly general) sources of funding have been identified for measures in support of the skills agenda.

Traineeships play an important role in bridging the gap between education and employment, or, in some cases, in enabling workers to move between one industry and another. However, as Ius Laboris reported last year in a report on ‘voluntary’ internships, the legal framework around these can be complex and best practice is not consistently observed. Trainees and interns remain vulnerable to exploitation as cheap labour, in settings where few meaningful skills may be obtained. Similarly, the continued use of unpaid internships in certain sectors raises issues of social inclusion, as these internships are simply not feasible for those who cannot rely on family financial support.

A 2014 Council Recommendation sought to improve the quality of traineeships in the EU. Among other things, it urged member states to require written agreements, promote appropriate learning and training objectives, clarify (but not guarantee) working conditions and social security coverage, facilitate cross-border traineeships, and promote the ‘recognition and validation of the knowledge, skills and competences acquired during traineeships’.

In a recent resolution, the European Parliament has taken the view that these measures do not go far enough, and has called for stronger, compulsory measures in the form of a Directive. Building on the Council Recommendation, the Parliament’s proposal would require written traineeship agreements, and guarantee many trainees access to minimum wages, health insurance, unemployment benefits, pension contributions, and transparent and predictable working conditions. It would also require national rules on extending or renewing traineeships, to ensure that successive or extended traineeships do not take the place of entry-level positions. Member states would be required to provide support to assist people with disabilities to access traineeships.

Conspicuously absent from the Parliament’s proposal are any further steps towards facilitating international mobility for trainees, or measures aimed facilitating access for third country nationals, many of whom do not benefit from intra-EU mobility rights even when established in a member state. Those third country nationals between education and work may also be on provisional or short-term immigration permission, further restricting their options for mobility to seek training or employment.

The focus on skills at international and EU level is a welcome show of support, especially towards young people whose experience of education, training and the transition to work has been so massively disrupted. Skilling, reskilling and upskilling will necessarily play a major role as the impact of artificial intelligence starts to be felt in labour markets across the world, and moves away from the use of fossil fuels continue.

It should be noted, however, that the EU’s deliberate policy of seeking, in part, to upskill Europe via skilled migration is in tension with the UN’s development-oriented approach. A policy of attracting skilled migrants to the EU is also a policy of drawing talent and capacity away from developing and middle-income countries, whose less skilled citizens are, in many cases, excluded from opportunities to work in Europe.

International pronouncements on skills, education and youth empowerment are, by their nature, vague. It is easy to see the abstract importance of competence and learning, and this is no bad thing. It should not be forgotten, however, that calls for international and public action on skills are also calls to business. To succeed in tomorrow’s economy businesses will need to approach skills in the right way. They will need to focus on and invest in people, avoid exploitative practices that are destructive of value if pursued over time, and offer opportunities to their new and existing employees to grow in themselves and in their roles.