The purpose of our research here was to map out and compare dynamics, performance and effectiveness of youth labour markets in Europe in different institutional and policy settings, using qualitative and quantitative analyses. Our comparative framework and selection of country case studies was informed by Pohl and Walther’s youth transition regime typology because we wished to capture, compare and contrast the existing diversity and variety of STW transitions not only between but also within regimes (Pohl and Walther 2005; 2007; Walther 2006). We therefore identified five main types of youth transition regimes:
Universalistic (SE), where the focus of STW transition policies is mainly on education in the broad sense of personal development as well as on supportive activation;
Liberal (UK), which focuses more on the young person’s rapid labour market entry;
Employment-centred (DE, FR, NL), each of which, although belonging to this regime, has a different STW transition focus: mass (company-based) apprenticeships (dual training) in Germany, school-based STW transition in France and a mixed apprenticeship and school-based VET system in the Netherlands, which, in any case, combines elements of both the liberal and the universalistic system;
Subprotective/Mediterranean (ES, TR), which has traditionally had the weakest links between the worlds of education and work and quite protracted STW transitions; and
Post-socialist/Transitional (EE, PL), which has adopted a mix of liberal and/or employment-centred approaches.
An in-depth analysis was carried out for eight selected countries (DE, EE, ES, NL, PL, SE, TR, UK) by Eichhorst et al. (2015) and Hadjivassiliou et al. (forthcoming). This provided detailed information about the education system as well as institutions responsible for the STW transition. Local experts (comparable groups comprising policy-makers and policy-implementing organisations, social partners, academic experts, etc.) were asked to give their assessment of national systems of STW transitions and how these can be improved – or have been improved – by recent policy innovations, including the EU-wide introduction of the Youth Guarantee and a stronger policy focus on vocational education and training (VET), including apprenticeships (Eichhorst et al. 2015).
Why compare countries?
Establishing a comparative overview of different youth labour markets in Europe such as those represented by the eight countries studied here is valuable for several reasons. For example, the existing heterogeneity between educational systems in Europe is an opportunity for mutual learning. To this end, cross-sectional differences between countries or longitudinal developments within countries concerning how education structures and systems (together with educational attainment) have been improved by recent policy innovations can be used as best practice, especially with respect to STW transitions. In this regard, the governance structure is one major pillar because decision-making structures are decisive for understanding administrative capacities and limitations. Within Europe, there is substantial variation in governance structures, ranging from rather centralised decision-making processes in Poland and Estonia to decentralised processes, as in Germany or Sweden.
Educational legislation is centralised
In most European countries, education legislation is centralised. This ranges from high levels of centralisation, as in Turkey, where the basic structure of education is planned and operated by the state, to intermediate levels, as in Estonia or Spain, where planning takes place at the state/regional level and operation happens at the local level, and to low levels of centralisation, as in Germany or Sweden, where both planning and operating is realised at the state/regional and local level.
The basic structure of schooling is similar in most European countries. Every country offers primary, secondary, vocational and tertiary education, with compulsory schooling components. Nevertheless, there are country-specific differences in the emphasis of each educational part. Whereas, for example, vocational education has traditionally been important in Germany and the Netherlands, the opposite is true in the case of the UK. Such factors explain differences in the levels of highest educational attainment and country-specific prioritisation of vocational as opposed to general education. In the case of Estonia, Germany and the Netherlands, high-school drop-out rates became an issue in tertiary or vocational education, while early school leaving (ESL) is especially an issue in the UK and Spain, which still has the highest ESL rate in Europe, albeit with significant differences across its 17 regions.
Education systems, shaped by the governance structure of each country, interact with various youth-related labour market policies. The latter are active labour market policies (ALMPs) that support young people in finding a job and/or, where appropriate, training or work experience placement, but additionally also legislation that hampers employment by increasing the costs of labour or decreasing incentives to work. Thus, country-specific employment protection, working-hour and minimum wage legislation, welfare benefits and labour taxation are of major importance when assessing education systems concerning school-to-work transitions.
Youth-related ALMPs focus on the transition between education and the labour market, especially for disadvantaged youth. For example, it has been shown that individualised and intensive support such as personalised job/career counselling together with individualised action planning by PES facilitates STW transitions. However, if such policies are in place, they are often complex and fragmented, for example, as in Germany and the UK. This is related to the fact that ALMPs are often decentralised and not always implemented by adequately resourced PES in terms of either funding and/or staffing. For example, despite the dramatic increase of youth unemployment in Spain, public spending cuts and austerity measures have led to a recruitment freeze in the Spanish PES and thus affected its capacity to provide assistance to an increasing number of young jobseekers. Indeed, as the European Commission itself underlines, the PES capacity in many member states is still too weak to provide personalised and individualised counselling, or active labour market measures and interventions tailored to the various jobseeker profiles. Unfortunately, little effort has been undertaken in evaluating these policies.
Independent of educational attainment, work experience can be seen as one important pillar for sustainable STW transitions in every country. Whereas countries like Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden achieve this by means of well-established schemes where school or study and work are combined, countries like France and the UK try to facilitate STW transitions by lowering labour costs through subsidies or low employment protection, respectively.
Employment protection legislation (EPL)
Employment protection legislation (EPL) is usually universal rather than youth specific, especially in the case of dismissal protection. Nevertheless, young people tend to be over-represented in certain forms of employment, such as fixed-term contracts and part-time or other atypical forms of employment. For example, Poland and Spain are among the EU countries with the highest rates of temporary employment among young people. At the other end of the spectrum, in Estonia and the UK, the use of temporary employment is among the lowest in the EU.
Such country variation reflects, inter alia, different labour market structures, STW transition patterns, EPL characteristics, the extent to which traineeships form part of the national education and training system, and youth-related policy measures. For example, the low EPL in Estonia and the UK – and associated greater labour market flexibility − has been regarded as a contributing factor to the low incidence of temporary employment in these countries.
Involving the social partners
Involving the social partners in decision-making processes could facilitate the efficiency and acceptance of youth-specific legislation that seeks to both promote greater labour market participation and safeguard the quality of employment of young people. Countries like Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain show how such social partner involvement can be achieved. The positive impact of social partner involvement is not only limited to legislation, but also to education programmes – adapted to better reflect employer requirements – or ALMPs.
Empirical evidence is essential for the rigorous evaluation of practices that improve STW transitions. However, it is necessary to point out that differences in youth labour market statistics between countries are at present partly driven by the recent crisis as opposed to solely reflecting the structure and effectiveness of STW transition in a particular member state. As such, the rather bleak picture that these statistics paint are, in many cases, the result of a lack in labour demand caused by both the Great Recession and the ensuing fiscal consolidation and austerity policies. For example, institutional factors are overshadowed by a lack of labour demand in Spain as the main factor explaining poor performance in youth transitions. Youth-related policies, however, focus (mostly) on the supply side of labour, like human capital formation, for example. Therefore, interpreting good labour market statistics as being the outcome of effective youth labour policy can be misleading.
The macroeconomic environment
Furthermore, the macroeconomic environment also drives the focus of policies, making skill mismatches a topic discussed more in countries like Germany or the Netherlands, while the distribution of jobs is of particular importance in a country like Spain. That said, institutions shape the youth labour market despite labour demand shocks, and analysing these institutional arrangements is important for enhancing one’s understanding about their structure, functioning and effectiveness. This in-depth examination of youth-related institutional frameworks must recognise differentiation between heterogeneous groups of young people. These differences range from young people who passed through the education system and became directly employed afterwards without any assistance, to those who are (long-term) unemployed without any formal school-leaving qualification. Even within these extreme cases, as Eurofound’s work on NEETs has highlighted, there are several and significant differences concerning family background, ethnicity, nationality or sex, for example.