Supporting young people in their transition to work: An interview with the ETF's Cristina Mereuta

Young people navigating the challenging transition from education to work in countries in the EU's neighbourhood are still struggling to recover from the setbacks of the pandemic years, Cristina Mereuta, the European Training Foundation’s (ETF) Coordinator for Active Labour Market Policies, says.

“The impact of the pandemic on youth employment and education remains relevant today,” she says, noting that some countries’ labour market indicators have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.

“This is something that is pushing EU neighbouring regions to look at more effective ways of increasing employment and employability for young people and improve the school-to-work transition.”

Supporting countries in developing and implementing measures to support the transition to work – including work-based learning, career guidance and counselling, and active labour market policies – are among the core activities the ETF has long been engaged in. Following the disruption caused by the pandemic, and current instability with the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East causing economic shocks throughout Europe and beyond, a specific focus on the most vulnerable young people is emerging as a key policy tool to support economic stability and social inclusion – both in Europe and its neighbourhood.

The Youth Guarantee, which focuses on those young people neither in employment, education or training (NEETs), is seen as a critical intervention to ensure that as many young people as possible are able to achieve their potential.

“Adopting and implementing a Youth Guarantee scheme is quite a complex challenge, involving attention to employment, social protection and education policies,” Mereuta adds. “It is therefore very important to have a political commitment to this.”

Figures on the NEETs in ETF partner countries indicate just how a pressing problem the school-to-work transition is: the latest figures (2022) show that, compared to the EU27 average of 9.6%, many countries have figures of over 20% (including Armenia, Albania, Georgia, Türkiye) and some between 29 and 32% (Palestine, Lebanon, Kosovo).

Young women tend to be more badly affected, in particular in some countries and cultures where women in prime child-bearing ages (25–35) often struggle to find work (because employers see them as a risky hire), and there is growing evidence that university graduates are also falling into NEET – even though there is usually a positive correlation between educational attainment and employability.

“Looking beyond NEETs, there is also an issue of job quality and skills mismatch in many countries, where as many as 40% of young workers are in jobs that are below their level of qualification,” Mereuta notes.

The figures show the pressing need for better interventions, which is why the EU and the ETF had welcomed the lead taken by countries in the Western Balkans, where in July 2021 political support for the Youth Guarantee was signalled in the Western Balkans Declaration made at the Brdo (Slovenia) EU-Western Balkans Ministerial meeting on employment and social affairs.

Political backing is a key component of implementing the Youth Guarantee as it involves a complex set of policies that goes beyond improving active labour market measures or apprenticeship schemes to have a comprehensive picture of what works, what are the conditions and obstacles.

Evidence from North Macedonia, which was the first non-EU country to adopt a Youth Guarantee scheme in 2018, shows a reduction in NEETs from around 30% of young people to 22.8% in 2022. Although it is always hard to isolate the impact of the policy from other factors – such as foreign investment, the building of new infrastructure, growing sectors such as ICT – it is clear that better outreach and tailored employment and on-the-job training programmes for young NEETs paid off.

Even where countries don’t formally implement a Youth Guarantee scheme, elements of the approach have been adopted by countries including Türkiye, where the EU’s pre-accession instrument, the IPA, channels investment to various fields, including in education, employment and social protection – the same target areas as the Youth Guarantee.

The Youth Guarantee is a flexible tool enabling policymakers to adopt and adapt parts of it to suit local conditions.

“You don’t have to go immediately for the full package as a country – addressing these issues. A gradual approach and sustained capacity building are recommended. Stronger youth employment and skills development are now a priority in enlargement countries including Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. It is also a priority for the Eastern Partnership countries overall and I anticipate the acceleration of countries using the Western Balkans' model of Youth Guarantee,” Mereuta says.

There are other measures the ETF is planning to bring forward to help improve the school-to-work transition for young people in its partner countries. In March, together with UNICEF, the ETF launched a new study on career guidance and young people’s expectations. Covering 11 countries, including those in the Western Balkans, and some countries in Central Asia and the Eastern Partnership region, the study looks at how career guidance currently works, and how improving it can impact youth employment and future careers.

“We have found that many young people do not have access to career guidance, and that in some services many important elements remain very traditional – focused on descriptions of professions, but lacking information on the resilience skills demanded today,” Mereuta says. “Career guidance may look at particular jobs, but is failing to underline that to survive in the future labour market you will need a whole array of skills – digital, communication and others, and most importantly career management skills.

“The policies and support to address transition to work and increased fragility at this time, to replace fear with resilience, are not yet in place.”

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