Although the majority of young people were not considered as the main risk group for COVID-19, they were among those who most strongly felt the consequences of the social and economic measures deployed to fight against the spread of the virus
The EU and Member States should implement a variety of labour market measures to help secure quality jobs for young labour market entrants, preceded by an education which equips a young person with relevant skills for the labour market.
The current European Year of Youth is a perfect chance to promote existing employment opportunities for young people and to launch new ones. It should also ensure that young people have a say in decisions affecting their future, stressed a hearing held by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 28 March.
Better addressing our young people's concerns and listening more to their voices represents a unique opportunity to make our labour market more cohesive, more dynamic, more united and therefore more resilient, said president of the EESC Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, Laurenţiu Plosceanu.
Youth participation in the labour market, organised by the EESC's Labour Market Observatory (LMO), brought together civil society organisations and social partners who discussed how to strengthen youth recruitment and employment in the EU.
Although the EU's overall youth employment figures are now back to pre-pandemic levels, the situation remains uncertain, as Europe's labour market is now expected to feel the impact of post-pandemic inflation. It should also brace for the socio-economic effects of a war on its border, resulting, among other things, in an unprecedented influx of refugees to the EU following Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine.
In an economic downturn, young people are the most vulnerable and are hit the hardest. The COVID-19 crisis has had an uneven impact on young people and this generation is likely to feel that impact for decades, said Biliana Siriakova, youth coordinator at the Commission's Directorate General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture.
COVID-19 had a multidimensional impact on youth which will affect their life transitions. It negatively influenced young people's employment and education prospects, their social capital and their health, primarily their mental health, said Eurofound's Social Policies Head of Unit Massimiliano Mascherini. Isolation brought by lockdowns made many young people anxious and depressed, leading to burnout and the feeling of hopelessness about the future.
To help young people regain their place in labour markets, there is a need for multilevel cooperation and clear participation of youth organisations in any reforms and decisions. A number of initiatives already directly target youth employment and aiming to boost employability, such as the reinforced Youth Guarantee and the new Erasmus programme with a doubled budget and a strong focus on social inclusion, The European Solidarity Corps initiative also allows young people to give a meaningful contribution to society through volunteering.
The European Education Area and the Digital Education Action Plan aim to increase employability by enabling young people to have high-quality education. The Commission's platform, the European Alliance for Apprenticeships, promotes vocational training and the New Youth Entrepreneurship Policy Academy will be focused on young entrepreneurs.
National recovery and resilience plans (NRRPs), submitted under the Recovery and Resilience Facility also contain measures for strengthening training systems and supporting apprenticeship programmes.
There is a reinforced preventative angle, so we want countries to prevent young people becoming unemployed or inactive in the first place. This means that young people should be offered guidance and support much earlier, even while they are still at school. We really believe that investing in young people is the best way to build a resilient and inclusive society, stressed Pablo Cornide, Policy Officer at the Commission's Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.
Different young people live different realities
The COVID-19 crisis has further deepened inequalities on the labour market, including among young people, with women and disadvantaged groups such as minorities or people with disabilities feeling this the most.
We receive data showing that young people face many barriers when accessing the labour market. If I add a disability factor, the obstacles are multiplied. We are facing barriers in society and the labour market is poorly adjusted to us, said Kamil Goungour, Chair of the European Disability Forum's Youth Committee.
Mr Goungour said he hoped that the activities planned under the European Year of Youth will take into account that not all young people are the same but that there are many different groups living different realities.
Participants stressed that the initiatives proposed to favour youth employment were good but it remained to be seen how they would be implemented. There should be a rights-based approach to ensure inclusion of all youth sub-groups and organisations.
Involving young migrants or young people neither in education nor training (NEETs) in co-creating training programmes that prepare them for the world of work is the best guarantee they will actually benefit from the training.
Yet the present situation shows that youth organisations or social partners have, for example, not been adequately involved in a national dialogue on NRRPs, although these plans in some parts directly related to youth, said EESC member Nicoletta Merlo.
The point of view of employers, SMEs and trade unions
Anna Kwiatkiewicz-Mory, Senior Advisor in Social Affairs at BusinessEurope, stressed that the inactivity rate was quite high among young people. In employers' view, it is important to ensure that young people can engage in diverse forms of work and are able to have flexible working arrangements. Another prerequisite for successful integration into the labour market is a smooth transition from school to work.
Tea Jarc, president of the ETUC Youth Committee, warned against austerity measures such as those applied during the 2008 financial crisis.
We want to propose a shift from that approach. We have never had such an educated generation, they deserve decent opportunities and jobs, said Ms Jarc, adding that European policies should be more ambitious and stronger, as currently no attention is paid to tailor-made offers for young people.
For Liliane Volozinskis, Social Affairs and Training Policy Director at SME United, the level of youth unemployment remains too high in many Member States, which can partly be ascribed to the fact that education and training systems often fail to equip students with the skills needed in the labour market. This includes basic skills such as numeracy, literacy and digital competences, but also soft skills such as creativity and adaptability.
She stressed that SME United supported the concept of training funds, which are jointly managed by social partners in line with labour market needs. Public employment services also have a role to play in helping with training opportunities.
Concluding the hearing, LMO president Lech Pilawski said:
We need to ensure that education is able to guarantee employment for young people. We need aggregated data to be able to take the right steps in relation to various needs. The European Year of Youth is a perfect opportunity to help young people, not just on the labour market but in many other areas too.