Youth unemployment is a complex problem that has no simple, one-size-fits-all solution. Over the last couple of years after the economic crisis, youth unemployment has dropped substantially in the Netherlands, although it remains high among youngsters without a starting qualification and among ethnic minorities. A substantial minority of youngsters, about 5%, belong to the NEET category, this however is the lowest percentage in Europe. In addition many youngsters are out of the picture of the usual statistics because they are not registered as unemployed while still seeking proper employment.
The current drop in youth unemployment suggests that for a better understanding of the low level of Dutch youth unemployment, we have to understand how and with which effect Dutch policies responded to the crisis. During the crisis important policy changes were launched in the Netherlands, notably the decentralization of social policies to the local level, the austerity policies, and the concluding of the social accord in 2013 that changed the employment protection rules affecting youngsters in particular. The combination of decentralization and restrained budgets for social policy created the need as well as the opportunity to develop innovative regional- and municipal-level cooperation between public authorities, business and schools. The national government is governing this process with subsidies to support innovative projects combatting youth unemployment or to set up public–private partnership projects, e.g. to improve job-to-job mobility or to develop labor market expertise. The policies to implement the European “Youth Guarantee” appeared to be very modest and left to the regions.
Regional ‘multiple helix’ governance
In this context, the question is to what extent the modest national ambitions to tackle youth unemployment have triggered learning at the regional level. In this contribution we have a brief look at policy developments in the capital city Amsterdam, in the economically advanced Eindhoven ‘Brainport’ region and the Tilburg labour market region where a novel ‘youth unemployment free zone’ has been set up. At first sight, the approach in the three regions appears to be quite similar. All three regions have adopted a triple-helix network approach in which government, employers, and knowledge institutions have set up a stakeholder network of public-private partnerships to design new practices and to achieve: fairly ambitious targets with respect to youth unemployment (Tilburg); top-talent management in the high-tech industry and creating career-long employment security (Eindhoven); and development of intermediate-level vocational education for low-skilled youngsters as part of a broader economic agenda (Amsterdam). All three have established a development organization, although they are not all equally robust. In Amsterdam, the network approach is very much initiated by the Economic Board, in which various stakeholders (government, education, business) are involved, though a political change was needed to bring in the VET schools as a vital part of the network. Also in the Brainport region, a development organization facilitates the network-based collaboration. In Amsterdam, as in Eindhoven, top-talent development for the labor market is high on the agenda, although Eindhoven mainly focuses on technical and IT professionals, whereas Amsterdam covers wider range of professions, skills and talent management. Tilburg stands out for its in European terms unique ambition with collaborative actions and practices.
The operation or impact of such network communities is always limited by the time and resources devoted to their functioning but especially by the authority assigned to and the power these networks can unfold which are required to change existing practices. In the case of cross-cutting themes encompassing two or more policy domains such as education and social policy, the demands or requirements for collaboration or cooperation become more explicit. In the field of education and work, they are twofold, first, the definition of a new mission and style of cooperation between school and companies is required to connect the processes of learning and working. Secondly, a deepening is needed of the content of learning and working so as to improve and upgrade the skill levels of youngsters. This points to the role of prevention through reduction of early school leaving and making use of a backbone of labour market information, including a set of signaling indicators on the development of the youth labour market.
Thus, at regional level, as part of the triple-helix approach, a further prioritization of ambitions and goals in policy making is necessary. For this reason, the implementation of a “Youth Guarantee” in Amsterdam, Eindhoven, and Tilburg requires a tailor-made approach with room for mediation and individual coaching to match youngsters to work. This also means the support and involvement of the parents or the household in which the youngster lives. Youngsters dropping out of the school system early on should set policy alarm bells ringing immediately. Moreover, sound statistics on school progress, school-to-work transitions, and inactivity are necessary conditions for success. A preventive approach also requires that one reach out to vulnerable youth as early as possible. Another issue is the unfavourable position of low-educated migrant workers facing higher barriers to finding work than native youngsters, even when they have similar qualifications. This has not changed during the recent economic recovery. For this challenge, a concerted approach on the three domains of employment, education, and social policy is required.
In spite of their short-time horizon, the emergence of a “Dutch triple- or multi-helix” approach in the three regions under scrutiny is promising to tackle youth unemployment at first sight. Stakeholders start learning from each other about the bottlenecks of the regional labour market and about how to improve policies to combat youth unemployment, which is a difficult issue to resolve. We argue that these novel modes of “governance” can receive support and feedback from stakeholders at local level. This innovative approach represents a shift from the classical modality of governance—which is project-oriented, subsidy-based, and coupled to financial incentives—to a network-based collaborative and more proactive and preventive approach that is conducive to innovative practices. Ideas have been proposed and partly tested in practice; now they need to be translated into sustainable practices and researched in depth to understand the factors behind their failure or success.
Bekker, Sonja, Marc van der Meer and Ruud Muffels. 2015. Barriers to and Triggers for Innovation and Knowledge Transfer in the Netherlands. STYLE-D4.1 Country Report Netherlands
Muffels, Ruud, Marc van der Meer, Sonja Bekker. 2017. Regional Governance of Youth Unemployment: A Comparison of three Innovative Practices of Multilevel Cooperation in the Netherlands. Unpublished Manuscript, Tilburg Law School.