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Meeting of Nordic Labour Ministers: Turning point for youth politics

| Text: Berit Kvam

How do you reach youths who are not in education nor employment? How do you motivate youth to finish their education? How do you secure a safe transition between school and working life? These were among the questions when labour ministers met to discuss youth unemployment in Copenhagen on 25 November.

Youth unemployment in the Nordic region is on average three to four times that of the general population. More efforts are called for. The main focus is on those who have a weak or no connection to the labour market. As Sweden's Hillevi Engström put it:

"There is no quick fix. Youth unemployment demands long-term efforts in pre-schools, primary schools and in further vocational education or in colleges. Youth unemployment was put firmly on the Nordic agenda during the labour ministers' 2009 meeting in Iceland. The ministers then commissioned a mapping and analysis of countries' efforts in fighting youth unemployment. The report was presented during the labour ministers' meeting in Copenhagen. 

The political turning point in the fight against youth unemployment has been the realisation of the importance of early and individualised measures and a strengthening of cross-subject and cross-authority cooperation in order to reach and help outsiders find help tailored to their needs. More emphasis has been put on education and a link between schools and working life. 

New strategy in Norway

"Norway's government has a new strategy giving more responsibility to the schooling sector and which highlights the importance of schools to youth unemployment," said Rune Solberg from Norway's Ministry for Labour, speaking on behalf of Labour Minister Hanne Bjurstrøm.

"30 percent of college students don't finish their education and have no contact with school or working life. Many have been in work but have been pushed out when the labour market deteriorates. The government will strengthen its measures aimed at marginalised youths in 2011. The school's follow-up service will contact all youths who are not in work or in further education. Schools in cooperation with NAV [Norway's Public Employment Authority] will make sure they are given other offers than what they've had so far."

The new Norwegian strategy means youths outside of education and work will have more help and should be motivated to go back to further education or work, if necessary while doing work placements and with wage subsidies. If there is little chance of a young person finishing his or her further education, he or she should be offered a full basic course in maths, writing and reading. Meanwhile there will also be a general strengthening of primary school teaching, to secure all those ready for further education have the basic skills needed.   

"The parties see the challenge of more youths needing better contact with working life. The combination work and education works well, but the scale of the offer is not adequate. Further measures must include better schooling and better cooperation between working life, schools and the labour market authorities," said Rune Solberg.

Denmark's new Activation Centres

Denmarks youth drive, launched last year, means all young people who have not finished their education must be offered schooling. Youth with an education but no job must be given help to find work. 

"Denmark demands that youths must be activated. Education is the first priority for those who have not finished any education preparing them for a job. 18 - 19 year olds who left secondary school and not gone into further education or work must be activated as soon as they approach the job centre. This might entail help to look for jobs or apprenticeships," said Minister for Labour Inger Støjberg.

Reading and writing is a prerequisite to finish an education or to get permanent ties to the labour market. In Denmark one in six school leavers are functionally illiterate. The government has therefore introduced mandatory reading and writing tests for under-30s, and support for courses in reading and writing.

The establishment of activation centres has drawn a lot of attention, and Inger Støjberg calls it a huge success. The activation centres are primarily aimed at those who are really struggling to find a job, and will provide job seekers with work and a mentor within an ordinary business, like a supermarket. 

"It is important to give them daily, ordinary tasks in the work place. The business' contact person will be trained in being a mentor and gets support from the job centre. The activation centre model helps lift the young person but it also means a lot to employees that businesses take social responsibility. One survey shows 70 percent of Danish businesses very much would like to take on young people and help them," said Inger Støjberg. Her challenge, she said, was to make the offer seamless for both those under and over 18 years of age.

Voluntary organisation active in Iceland

"For the first time we see people who've been unemployed for three years in Iceland. This is a new phenomenon in the wake of the crisis," said Minister for Welfare  Gudbjartur Hannesson.

Unemployment has led to the launch of 'youth activation'. This means no-one below the age of 25 should be out of work for more than three months before being offered a study place, a job or job training. To make this happen the labour market directorate cooperates with both private and state-owned companies, unions and voluntary organisations. This means young people have to take an active part in society. 

"All youths will be advised about their opportunities and can freely chose what is most relevant to them. But they cannot remain passive because they would loose their right to unemployment benefit," said Mr Hannesson.

Sweden's Minister for Labour Hillevi Engström focuses on the carrot rather than the stick, as is the situation in Denmark. Sweden's unemployed youth who have not finished their education must be offered education within the state system while receiving student subsidies. In 2011 the government goes further and reduces employer's tax for those employers who hire long-term unemployed and other marginalised people in the labour market, while there will be a slight reduction in the offer of coaching for handicapped youths. 

Focus on youths also in future

The report 'Nordic Countries' Measures Against Youth Unemployment - Mapping and Analysis' (see link below) underlines the benefits of cross-country exchanges of  experiences on measures against youth unemployment. Denmark's Minister for Labour, Inger Støjberg, who chaired the meeting, summed up the debate by looking at how countries could get together to follow up the work and make sure the focus on youth unemployment remains:

"Measures must be visible, central and they should be carried out in cooperation with the labour ministers. Also: 

• Country reports which form the basis for the cross-country exchange of information must contain a provision for ministers to inform each other what they are doing specifically for youths.

• Countries must exchange results from national evaluations of measures. 

• The Senior Officials Committee which has been delegating the responsibility for cooperation between the meeting of ministers will continue to work with how to generally and systematically include youths in projects and inquiry work. 

Finland will chair the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2011. Youth unemployment will remain a focus, said Aila Tommola-Kruse from Finland's Ministry of Employment and the Economy. Finland plans to hold a meeting of experts to look at consequences of measures aimed at youths. 



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