Salvatore Nigro, CEO of JA Europe and Andzelika Rusteikienė CEO of JA Lithuania, discuss why the NextGeneration EU recovery plan must close the gaps in education that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed
The lives of young people have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. While not as physically vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus as other age groups, the sacrifices that were demanded of societies across Europe will weigh particularly heavy on the lives of the youngest generation as we begin to rebuild our economies.
As the pandemic began to spread across Europe, unemployment across the continent began to rise too, but it was the youth unemployment rate that was largely contributing to this spike. In December 2020, 3.1 million young persons under 25 were unemployed in the EU, an increase of 438,000 from the same time in 2019. Given that youth unemployment was already one of the biggest problems that the EU faced before the crisis, this issue cannot be allowed to slip further down the list of priorities.
It is therefore absolutely vital that the NextGenerationEU recovery plan provides a pathway for young people to recover their lives. This €750 billion stimulus package is designed to help repair the economic and social damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic. When combined with the EU’s long-term budget, it represents the largest stimulus package ever financed in Europe. Its aim is to make Post-COVID-19 Europe greener, more digital, more resilient and better prepared for upcoming challenges.
Yet, despite its name, the plan doesn’t seem to include specific targets to Member States to support the next generation. In general, governments continue to focus on providing the current generation, with the means to repair the immediate economic and social damage. Rather than confronting generations it is now time to bring all of them together with significant investments in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship. What we call Gen-E.
Education has been hugely impacted by COVID. It has highlighted inequalities across classrooms and across the continent. Nearly one in eight European students saw their education come to a complete halt, and at least two thirds saw their learning significantly interrupted. In a recent survey, almost 90% of the participating teachers in the JA network in Europe have consequently found their students’ performance and employment prospects reduced, with the lost school year predicted to reduce lifetime income by up to 10%. A huge majority of teachers and young people are now also experiencing increased stress and mental health issues in their schools during 2020, while many are feeling isolated.
If we are to rebuild the continent then the next generation must be the priority, not an afterthought of the Recovery Plan. Priority improvement areas are linked to digital learning in Europe, an absence of which has stagnated the potential of European youth for a generation. Internet availability creates huge divides in achievement and a general lack of IT hardware holds back both students and teachers who are training.
It’s time for European governments to recognise the pivotal role education plays in preparing young people for employment and entrepreneurship to rebuild the economy.
The results of avoiding the issues are clear for all to see. Youth unemployment in some countries has passed 40%, i.e. Spain, and requires significant investment into skilling, employment policies, access to finance and entrepreneurship-start up support and mentoring for it correct. But upskilling the current workforce is only the start, and we need to ensure the next EU generation has a chance to recover from this lost year and earn the skills they need.
Existing EU schemes which fall under the Youth Strategy 2019-2027 have already revealed the huge benefits of setting up initiatives that intervene in young people’s lives at crucial times. We have seen and felt the benefits of the significant increase of the Erasmus + budget, which aids the transition to work and social inclusion promoted by the European Skills Agenda. But if young people are to truly reach their potential, so much more is needed: Governments need to set clear targets for the reduction of youth unemployment in utilizing this additional funding provided by NextGeneration EU.
That is why JA Europe is continuing to support tens of thousands of under 25s through our entrepreneurship and work readiness programme. The immediate benefits from these programmes are clear – JA alumni attain degrees in higher numbers and are 25% less likely to be unemployed after graduation – but there is also a longevity piece to be considered here too. Across Europe, there is currently a huge skills shortage, particularly when it comes to the digital sphere – in the UK alone, 40% of the population lacks digital skills. Investing in these areas will not only save a group of people at risk of being lost, it will fill the skill gaps and equip the next generation with the talents needed for long-term economic recovery.
Government engagement in these sort of activities can be particularly beneficial. For instance, For the past 2 years Junior Achievement Lithuania and the Ministry of Education, Science and Sports have started piloting financial literacy education programmes in primary schools. Over 200 teachers were trained across the country and the programmes are ready for scale. The Government of Lithuania has also included entrepreneurship education in high schools in its action plan for the upcoming 4 years.
The reality is that the world of work is changing beyond recognition of anything our generation went through, and the pandemic is only accelerating these challenges. Long term jobs that invest in young employees are drying up, as the industries they could work in undergo drastic changes. There are more barriers to higher education, and the transition from education to work is as large as it has ever been.