Enabling young people to succeed in European labour markets

When laying out its Europe 2020 objectives, the EU set itself the target of increasing the Union’s employment rate to 75%1 for all people between 20 and 64 within a decade. Given the high level of youth unemployment in some EU Member States (e.g. Spain), it is clear that the 2020 target can only be achieved if young people are integrated into the labour market more fully. Findings from the WORKABLE project suggest how to tackle this particular challenge.

A multidimensional research process involving thirteen partners, WORKABLE is dedicated to the goal of “strengthening the capabilities of young people to actively shape their personal and work lives in knowledge societies”. The three-year project has produced a number of reports featuring policy-relevant observations. The latest report - Educational, Vocational and Policy Landscapes in Europe2 details the educational and training systems in nine European countries (Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) and examines how they situate themselves in the ‘education-employment-community/social integration’ nexus. The researchers plot out the standard educational paths in each country and describe typical transitions to employment. As noted in the report’s introductory summary, the ‘problem groups’ in these nine countries are largely similar.

These groups are composed of young people with:

  • Parents of low educational background.
  • Migrant background (most typically from Eastern and Southern countries).
  • Actual or ascribed non-conformist behaviours.
  • (Sometimes) physical or mental handicaps.

Before mapping the contours of the educational, vocational and policy landscapes in each country, the report notes four major tasks for educational and labour market regimes: remedying failures in the educational system; improving employability of young people; improving transition into educational training; and avoiding social exclusion.

Another WORKABLE report that will be of interest to European policy makers is A Blueprint of Capabilities for Work and Education3. This focuses on key theoretical debates surrounding the subject of capabilities acquisition. These debates are important because they determine the starting point for diverse kinds of policy intervention. In their Blueprint report the researchers provide analysis of the benefits and limitations of two specific approaches: the well-known Human Capital Approach (HCA), which focuses on economy-based information, and the Capability Approach (CA), which offers a far broader perspective on employment, work, education and training.

The consortium sees advantages in both of these approaches, but notes that the Human Capital Approach assigns a rather restricted role to education. The WORKABLE researchers also observe that the HCA may fail to give sufficient weight to differences (cultural, gender, emotional and historical) that affect choices regarding education and work, and influence a person’s wellbeing. The Capability Approach, on the other hand, is regarded as advocating the achievement of collective goals for the benefit of individuals. Its focus on education is described as going beyond employability and investments. Indeed, the Blueprint report indicates that the CA “highlights the significance of developing critical reflection and strengthening democratic participation in society”. The Capability Approach, the researchers observe, could open up new avenues for policy making.

When it comes to describing the overall approach to the challenge of youth employment, the researchers point out that “the general strategy seems to be the attempt to adapt people to (labour) market demands rather than the other way round”. The limitations of this approach are described in the individual country reports.

Initial policy recommendations are summarised below:

  • Promote a more encompassing view of skills.
  • Focus on soft skills such as the ability to adapt to a changing labour market.
  • Privilege long-term training instead of short-term training.
  • Promote the intrinsic value of education.

More detailed recommendations - including policy briefs - are expected to follow as the project nears completion in October 2012.


1 This figure includes officially unemployed people and ‘inactive’ people, i.e. those who are not seeking employment (e.g. caring for children), full-time students and people who are on long-term sick leave, etc.

2 See: http://www.workable-eu.org/publications/29-final-reports/92-deliverable-3-2

3 See: http://www.workable-eu.org/publications/29-final-reports/81-deliverable-2-2

WORKABLE – Making capabilities work (duration: 2/11/2009 – 1/11/2012). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 1 "Growth, employment and competitiveness in a knowledge society", Research area 1.1 "Changing role of knowledge throughout the economy". Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).

See: http://www.workable-eu.org/

Contact: Dr. Alkje Sommerfeld, euprojects_otto@uni-bielefeld.de