Why wellbeing should be at the heart of youth education and skills policies

The European Training Foundation’s latest Learning Connects live session Thursday (February 23 2023) got to grips with an issue that is increasingly coming under the spotlight: why the wellbeing of young people is so important for skills development.

As governments across the European Union and in the partner countries on its borders that the ETF works with, emerge from the social and economic challenges of the pandemic, policies to ensure inclusion for all are at the forefront of forward-looking strategies. Education and skills are priorities as never before – take, for example, the declaration of 2022 as the EU’s Year of Youth, and 2023 as the Year of Skills.

But to what extent is wellbeing a factor in these approaches to skills development, the livestream, which was broadcast across Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn, asked.

Snežana Klašnja, Minister Advisor, Ministry of Tourism and Youth, Serbia, and Manuela Prina, Head of Skills Identification and Development Unit, at the ETF, hosted by the ETF’s Communication Officer, Denise Loughran, drilled down into how the pressures and challenges young people face today must be seen in terms of their overall wellbeing.

“Young people are the basic human capital for any society,” Snežana noted. “If you look at the wellbeing of a society you understand that we must invest in the wellbeing of young people, their knowledge and skills - and create conditions for them to have economic and social independence.”

It was laudable to have special focuses on youth and skills, but without understanding the growing pressures young people face in Europe today, skills alone were not the only answer to the economic challenges all societies are currently facing.

Picking up the issue, Manuela said that a joint study by Eurofound and the ETF, had found that young people as a whole were the most vulnerable in society, and had borne the brunt of recent crises, such as the pandemic.

 “We need to put together wellbeing with the work that the ETF does together with partners countries on education, skills, development and employment,” she said.  

The fact that young people were bearing the brunt of recent crises puts the focus on “building resilience”, she added.

“Resilience is impacted by such things as the pandemic and the aggression in Ukraine – and its consequences – which limit the possibilities for young people to take up opportunities and engage in skills development and employment. The pandemic has highlighted for policymakers this issue of how young people are impacted in times of crisis, how this affects their opportunities and wellbeing.”

Developing policies that are nuanced enough to take in to account the needs of a range of groups within the 15-30 age group that made up what most societies define as ‘youth’, was the key challenge for officials, Snežana said.

“Gender, geography and ethnicity are all important factors affecting the vulnerability of young people,” she said.

“In Serbia, for example we see better results each year for employment, but still have about 20 percent unemployment for young people, compared with 13 percent in the EU; self-employment is largely a male concern, with just 23 percent of young entrepreneurs being women.”

Statistics showed that although 39 percent of young people in Serbia would like to start up their own businesses, most that do so are men aged over 20 from urban areas. Regional disparities mean that opportunities for young people are much lower in the south and east, and among rural residents. Drop-out rates from education and figures for NEETS (those not in employment, education or training) were all higher in regions far from Belgrade.

The challenge now was for all branches of government and agencies that engage with youth to understand that putting wellbeing at the heart of their policies was now a necessity.

Policymakers had long focused on skills as the essential core of developing opportunities for young people, Manuela said. But even among the most highly motivated and brightest groups, the issue of wellbeing was now being highlighted as key to going forward.

“Last year we were working on an initiative with a company that created a leadership academy for young women in the IT sector. We worked with this group of fantastic girls focusing on how we can look at digital skills in the future,” Manuela recalled. “They were all very familiar with advanced technical issues - but they pointed out that the one issue for policy consideration had to be mental health.”

She was, she added, “very surprised to hear this from this group” – but it was clear that young people felt that too much was “being put on their plates.”

 “It is about looking at skills, but helping young people to develop skills for coping too,” Manuela said. We must look at how we help young people to navigate a complex society and to become resilient. Anxiety, depression, exposure to cyber bullying, these are all growing – and they require new skills for youth and teachers, and for those that are in contact with young people.”

Snežana noted that the Western Balkan Youth Laboratory had also chosen mental health as a key objective for policymakers, and urged that policymakers look at facilitating greater involvement in ensuring the wellbeing of young people by all stakeholders, including parents, teachers, youth workers and peer support groups.

A Youth Wellbeing Index was now being piloted in Serbia to help inform policymakers on how better to tailor policies that affect youth to their specific needs in the widest sense, she added.

In concluding remarks, Manuela noted that she had been working with or for policymakers for 23 years.

“I have always been attached to wellbeing and inclusion, diversity. It is not that before it was not on the radar. There were already policy questions and lots of actions on this. However, I think the pandemic and the risks we see associated with the complexity of society today – the numbers of young people we now see in hospital – means that this needs a new policy effort.”

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