Salvatore Nigro, Chief Executive Officer of JA Europe
Earlier this month, the OECD released its annual Education at a Glance 2023 report, looking at the state of education around the world. Findings included 14 per cent of 25-34-year-olds had not completed secondary education in 2020, and, despite the fact that average expenditure on education has risen by 65% since 2000, the number of full-time students had decreased by 5 per cent in the same period.
In the context of an increasingly challenging global economic landscape and widespread tightening of public spending, it is clear that European policymakers must now work to enhance our education systems to deliver better value for money. The priority should also be to expand the talent pipeline and ensure underserved youth are being given access to education and skills development opportunities – in a way that is more cost-effective and yields better results.
There is currently a high risk of leaving even greater numbers of underserved youth in marginalised communities without the skills and training needed to achieve critical upward occupational mobility.
Firstly, European policymakers must consider how best to boost access to vocational education and training to ensure more young people can acquire the skills needed to thrive in an economy which is being profoundly altered by the wider green and digital transformation.
Hitting the EU’s goal of 80 per cent of Europeans possessing basic digital skills can be supported by a greater focus on delivering vocational, hands-on learning to the next generation of talent. Digital skills, by their nature, are best acquired through real-world application, and this approach allows young people to gain direct experience, enhance problem-solving abilities and boost proficiency in using digital tools and platforms.
Additionally, vocational training is generally well aligned with the needs of the job market. This increases the chances that Europe’s next generation is well prepared for the workforce of the future and more likely to secure full-time employment. JA Europe research Economic Opportunities for All supported by the NN Group, stresses specific challenges for Europe’s underserved youth: “Although it is estimated that automation and automated processes will not lead to a decrease of jobs in general, it would have a negative impact among people and youth with a low level of education in comparison with those with a higher level of education.”
Furthermore, the OECD report found that 44 per cent of all upper secondary students are enrolled in vocational education and training across the OECD; they also note that these programmes are still seen as a “last resort” to many countries. European policymakers have a role to play in shifting this narrative and highlighting the unique benefits of vocational learning to bridge the gap between privilege and potential. Vocational training is also a viable way to attract underserved youth, who may feel rejected or discouraged from mainstream education.
Europe’s business leaders, through graduate internships and apprenticeship schemes, have a critical role to play in offering greater vocational opportunities to the next generation of talent. These partnerships between government and industry — designed to be inclusive and accommodate people from all backgrounds — can help provide learners with opportunities to work on real-world projects, further enhancing their skill development outside the sometimes-slow-paced learning environment of traditional classrooms.
According to ManpowerGroup’s “Employment Outlook Survey” of September 2023, employers are evaluating candidates beyond their technical skills, and focusing on soft skills such as: communication, collaboration and teamwork (39%); accountability and reliability (33%); reasoning and problem-solving (29%); active learning and curiosity (23%); and resilience, stress tolerance, and adaptability (23%) as key soft skills.
Within JA Europe, our programmes — which help create pathways for Europe’s youth to boost their employability — rely heavily on the support of over 100,000 business volunteers to bring technical and soft/skills into the classrooms.
These types of programmes can be an incredibly effective mechanism to help people overcome the traditional barriers to entry that guard many jobs in the modern economy – providing a viable route for individuals from diverse backgrounds, regardless of their formal educational history, to gain access to the labour market.
This would help to ensure that talent and hard work defines future prospects rather than economic backgrounds.
Notably, the OECD report found that 84% of the funding for educational institutions came directly from government sources. Similar, to the role EU business leaders can play in offering inclusive vocational learning experiences, the private sector has a critical role to play in supporting the development and advancement of our education systems.
In fact, European policymakers should work to better mobilise private sector investment to support the education needs of Europe’s youth — which would help drive innovation, support the development of new teaching methods, widen access through scholarships, and help shape the curriculum to boost employability and entrepreneurship.
The youth of today have so much to offer our society, but they can’t deliver this alone.
Ultimately, talent is universal, but opportunity is not. Therefore, government and business should work together so young people in Europe can develop themselves and discover new capabilities. If properly supported by industry, education systems can have a big impact on people’s lives — empowering the next generation of Europeans and working to ensure that no one is left behind.
Young people, especially underserved youth are facing challenges, including the ongoing skills gap shortage, the economic climate, and aftershocks of the pandemic and recession.
However, opportunity is also rife, and youth have immense qualities, ideas and contributions they can make to communities and the economy.
To seize these opportunities, the onus is on us to unite and collaborate to mobilise the business community, private and public sectors and policymakers across Europe to empower the underserved and build the youth of today up to help create futures for each generation to come.
 P. 36 in “Scoping research Economic Opportunities for All”, http://jaeurope.org/index.php?option=com_attachments&task=download&id=1557:Economic-Opportunities-for-All_Scoping-research-FINAL-(1)