Wasted youth

Fri, Jul 5, 2013, 01:00

No greater economic challenge exists than youth unemployment, for Ireland and for Europe. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the youth unemployment rate has soared, with joblessness rising fastest among the young. In Ireland, almost one in three 15-24 olds is out of work, with even higher rates recorded elsewhere – more than 50 per cent in Spain and Greece. In an economic downturn, young people quickly feel the full impact of recession. Employers faced with economic uncertainty are reluctant to hire. They are more concerned to retain employees than to expand their workforce. And young job seekers invariably find they are handicapped either by a lack of work experience, or by a mismatch between their educational skills and the needs of the market. As the Irish Times series this week on youth unemployment has shown, few countries – other than Germany – have so far met the challenge of youth unemployment with any measure of success.

The poor performance of national governments in tackling the youth unemployment issue has opened the way for an EU initiative. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, this week chaired a meeting of EU leaders on the subject, where they agreed an additional €2 billion in funding for a problem that, as yet, awaits a clear solution – one that can only really come at national level. The European Investment Bank (EIB) has already agreed to make €6 billion available in loans to fund projects in countries, like Ireland, with high rates of youth unemployment, in order to encourage companies to start hiring young people again.

Next November, EU leaders will meet again, and this time each country will report on how it proposes to address the issue, based on national circumstances. At this week’s special summit they expressed concern about youth unemployment, but without clearly indicating what they propose to do about it.

Undoubtedly, Germany has much to teach other countries. It’s the only EU country where youth unemployment – below 8 per cent; one third of the European average – has fallen since 2000. Its unique success reflects a combination of factors that others, including Ireland, should examine more closely. One notable success is Germany’s dual-education system, where apprenticeships are combined with education, which helps to ensure young school leavers have adequate job opportunities.

The Government should take note of what the Oireachtas European Affairs Committee has to say on youth unemployment. It recommends a youth guarantee be introduced to give a young unemployed person the offer of a job, training, education or an apprenticeship. Both the European Commission and the European Council favour such an approach. And their support now means the Government must give it serious consideration.