National recovery plans: a chance to curb youth unemployment

COVID-19 has caused youth unemployment to soar in many Member States, pushing up the number of young people who neither work nor are in school or in training. National recovery plans represent a unique chance to reverse this trend and secure decent work for all young Europeans.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is urging Member States to use the funds in the national recovery plans to create dignified, quality jobs for young people and to make Europe's labour markets more inclusive for them.

In a recent own-initiative opinion, the EESC welcomed the National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs), which the Member States had to submit to be able to get loans and grants for their reforms and investments aimed at securing a swift recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. However, the EESC stressed the need for civil society oversight when these plans are put into practice.

National recovery plans are a unique opportunity that needs to be seized with inclusive governance and in an open and transparent dialogue, said the rapporteur of the opinion, Nicoletta Merlo, speaking at the EESC's December plenary session where the opinion was adopted.

Expressing regret that no significant consultation of social partners, youth organisations or organised civil society took place during the preparation of national recovery plans, Ms Merlo said the EESC called for the involvement of those stakeholders in the implementation and monitoring of those plans.

In this way we can safeguard social dialogue at the national level, which is essential to make sure that public money is well spent so that we can have an inclusive recovery. We want Member States to develop quality jobs and inclusive services for young persons, and in particular those with disabilities and those who are vulnerable for different reasons, Ms Merlo maintained.

The plans should pay particular attention to the upskilling of young people who need it. A special focus should also be placed on open-ended contracts and decent working conditions that limit the risk of many young workers ending up in precarious employment as they too often do currently.

According to recent Eurostat figures, one in six young people under 30 lost their job due to economic consequences of COVID-19. In several EU countries, youth unemployment soared. In Spain, it was almost three times higher than the EU average, standing at 40.5% in August 2021. Italy was also particularly hard hit with 29.7% of young people jobless.

The figures are feared to be higher as a proportion of unemployed young people tends to be overlooked in the official data because they fail to apply for unemployment benefits. They do not enrol with employment agencies but rather earn their living working for a platform or in the shadow economy.

Furthermore, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, the number of young people who are neither in employment, education nor training (NEETs) went up and their situation worsened even further due to school drop-outs, a lack of appropriate guidance, lack of job opportunities and job losses.

In general, there are more young women than young men among NEETs, particularly in Eastern Europe and Italy. This is mostly due to family responsibilities or to disabilities.

NEETs are at a higher risk of marginalisation, poverty and permanent exclusion from employment. The incapacity of education and social systems to prevent the phenomenon or reduce the number of NEETs points to a failure of broadly supported efficient policies to promote equality of opportunities across Europe, the EESC said in the opinion.

The increase in school drop-outs could, in the long term, lead to the current generation of students failing to develop positive learning attitudes. This is especially worrisome given the profound changes expected in the world of work due to the digital transition that is requiring people to update their skills throughout their working life and beyond, a study showed.

One way of stopping young people from leaving school early is to promote quality traineeships. They can also help young people to integrate into labour markets more easily, Ms Merlo said.

In its opinion, the EESC called for a ban on unpaid internships and for decent remuneration for all interns. It also suggested that a European Framework for Quality Internships be developed in order to guarantee the educational value of such learning experiences.

Another important prerequisite for ensuring that young people are protected from poverty and from future labour market shocks is building a universal social protection scheme that would ensure social coverage of all workers, regardless of their age or type of work contract.

However, the Youth Guarantee, which is newly financed by the European Social Fund +, remains the main tool for combatting rising youth unemployment in the EU. The EESC said it regretted that the potential of the Youth Guarantee had so far not been fully realised.

In the case studies of five national recovery plans, appended to the opinion, the EESC, among other things, analysed how the plans dealt with youth unemployment, the situation of NEETs and how successfully the Youth Guarantee was implemented.

For example, the Italian national plan suggested that the national Youth Guarantee implementation plan should be used to reach NEETs. However, the latest data show that the Youth Guarantee is not working well. Indeed, the EESC case study demonstrated that more than two thirds of young people registered in the Italian Youth Guarantee in 2018 had waited for an offer for over a year.

In its opinion, the EESC also stressed the need to tackle unemployment and inactivity among young women through NRRPs. It welcomed measures to promote and popularise vocational education and training (VET) to bridge the existing skills gaps. It stressed the importance of efficient public employment services in supporting all people, especially the most vulnerable and those furthest from the labour markets, in their search for work or in their professional reorientation.

Close attention should be paid to mental health and psychosocial disorders, especially among young people, with proper support provided in schools and in workplaces, the EESC concluded.