The recovery of the Spanish economy has been evident for some time now. In fact, according to official statistics, GDP annual growth has been positive since 2014 and employment has also started to increase since 2015. However, as a young Spaniard in his final formative stage, I perceive the situation differently. Many friends that have finished their university degrees are caught in a trap of precarious and low-quality employment. Others, especially those who have not continued with their education and training, accept jobs that last only hours or a few days, in the best cases.
Official statistics give over-optimistic politicians a clear advantage, since employment rates do not reflect the quality of jobs. However, the serious problem of youth employment in Spain is the lack of jobs for the less well qualified and, despite the improvement of the economy, the situation has not changed for young people. The weak performance of the Spanish labour market for young people has already been documented extensively by other significant studies from a multidimensional and longitudinal perspective (Hadjivassiliou et al. 2015; Grotti et al. forthcoming; Hadjivassiliou et al. forthcoming).
Table 1: Employment rates in Spain and other EU countries by education and age in 2016
Source: Eurostat, EU-LFS.
These facts lead to highly relevant questions, which have been part of my research and to which I would like to respond here from my personal point of view. Since I started my university studies, I have always had a special interest in sociology, labour economics and public policy analysis. In these academic fields, I have found the motivation and support necessary to expand and deepen my knowledge on the situation of young people in the labour market. The following questions and their answers arise from a body of research that I have been revising since I joined the Department of Sociology of the University of Oviedo in 2016. In addition to these short questions, I would also like to share my experience within the STYLE project and how this has helped me to discover new perspectives on the issue of youth employment.
Are the low youth employment rates associated with the crisis or are they structural traits of the Spanish labour market?
Figure 1 shows the evolution of employment by age groups and education level for the second quarters of different years from 2000 to 2016. It can be seen that the employment of Spanish young people was already low before the economic crisis. In spite of this, it is also true that those with a low education level aged between 20 and 29 years had high employment rates, even higher than other young people with more education. This can be explained by the high level of early school dropouts registered before the crisis (Hadjivassiliou et al. forthcoming). Many young people abandoned their studies to seek employment in the services and building sector (Grotti et al. forthcoming).
Figure 1: Youth employment evolution in Spain (2000-2016)
Source: Eurostat, EU-LFS.
Which young people have been more affected by the economic recession in Spain?
Although the inclusion of young people in the labour market was already low before the crisis, the employment reduction has significantly affected those between 15 and 24 years with low education levels (see Figure 1 above). Besides that, it has been reported by other studies that women, immigrants and children from low socio-economic backgrounds have been particularly hit by the economic downturn (Moreno Mínguez 2015).
Why is youth employment especially low in Spain?
Some authors have already pointed out the long-term nature of low youth employment rates. Garrido et al. (2016) disaggregate the evolution of employment rates by different population cohorts and argue that what really fails is the youth labour integration model as a whole. This integration model has been discussed broadly in comparative research. Following an institutional approach, there are two main reasons that can explain the low labour market participation of young Spanish people.
On the one hand, the disconnection between the educational system and employability has caused an increase in long-term youth unemployment and NEET rates. Many students left their training during the expansionary phase of the previous economic cycle and others did not invest enough training time to be able to get a job afterwards. This, in addition to the lack of effective and targeted active labour market policies, is one of the main reasons for the exclusion of less qualified young workers from labour participation.
On the other hand, the Spanish contractual framework has fostered a pattern of ‘biographical’ dualism. What this means is that the formal rule and primary channel of young people to reach stable employment is through fixed-term employment contracts. Unlike labour segmentation in other countries, working conditions that involve temporality in Spain are much more correlated with biographical and working age. This temporality pattern, besides being involuntary, reduces future labour opportunities and blocks employees’ professional development (Dolado et al. 2013).
My experience with STYLE: What I have learned
My interest in the previous questions and the support of my Professor María González Menéndez gave me the opportunity to accompany the STYLE research network during their visit to the European Parliament in the European Youth Event (EYE). I participated in different workshops and presentations discussing how we can tackle youth unemployment.
One of the main concerns expressed in the different thematic sessions was the implementation of the Youth Guarantee. Young people coming from across Europe agreed in identifying a set of potential improvements to this policy. The most important were those related to training and the funding of the policy. Too often education authorities are not involved or don´t form part of the development of the policy. As a result, firms don’t consider training initiatives a priority and focus on hiring young people at lower wages than older age groups.
There is a serious problem with training in policies like Youth Guarantee. What happens is that money is not spent on policies that are highlighted in the original plans and, sometimes, companies only implement training initiatives in order to get special bonuses or deductions for hiring young people. In order to avoid these types of problems, performance and impact assessments are necessary. These need to be conducted by organisations that do not have a vested interest in benefitting from the policy incentives.
Despite the unquestionable benefits of the workshop discussions, I would like to stress that probably the greatest lesson I have learnt was the spirit of the EYE event and the attitude of the STYLE ‘squad’. During those days, I shared impressions and perceptions with other young people who face youth unemployment in their countries from different perspectives and with different social concerns. I also became part of a diverse group of people that included teachers, students, practitioners of social organisations and others, some with disabilities.
Having had the opportunity to meet all those people has helped me to realize that many times society gives us a wrong view of social problems and how to cope with them. It is normally assumed that some issues require complex and difficult solutions. But what I really think is that great solutions do not come from very sophisticated schemes. Great solutions arise when different and diverse people come together and talk about their own problems and think about what they, and the rest of society, can do to improve the situation.