The University of the Basque Country’s professor of Sociology, Eguzki Urteaga, moderated one of three plenary sessions at the Bilbao Youth Employment Forum, where experts from various fields reflected on the barriers preventing young people accessing the labour market. With this experience still recent, Urteaga speaks of the social problems caused by youth unemployment, he criticizes governments for “not taking this issue seriously enough” and recommends, for the forthcoming edition of this forum, a comparative analysis of dual training models to adapt them to the Basque Country.
-What are your thoughts about the BYEF, in which you have played such an active role?
I think the forum has been very productive. People from different agencies, institutions, organizations and companies took part and that has led to an interesting discussion with elements of understanding and diagnosis that have been very relevant and, moreover, concrete proposals to reduce youth unemployment, particularly severe in southern European countries.
-Of all the proposals that were put forward in the plenary sessions, which do you think may be more feasible to implement in the short term?
One of the reforms that seems to be essential is to develop dual training, i.e. the possibility of having university students, and even secondary school students, benefiting from a system which combines study phases in the classroom with periods working in companies. Countries like Austria and Germany have developed this model and it has allowed them to achieve very low levels of youth unemployment. This alternation enables young people to gain experience, learn the business culture of a company and this significantly increases the possibility of being hired once the placement period has ended.
-What are the strengths of the Basque Country regarding education and employment policies?
One of the assets is Vocational Training, especially if we compare the Basque model to what exists in several other autonomous communities, and we must also consider the significant importance of industry. Industry accounts for 25% of GDP in the Basque Country, while in many European countries it is less than 20%. That’s an asset. Having a good productive fabric that is balanced regarding different sectors has strengthened our position in tackling the economic and financial crisis.
-Do you think that governments are tackling the youth unemployment issue with courage?
No, I would say that there are significant shortcomings in policies at European, national, regional and provincial levels. They have not realised the significance of the youth unemployment problem, not only regarding career prospects these young people may have but also regarding the social, economic, demographic balance. The fact that many young people are unable to find a job has remarkable consequences at several levels: it delays their age of emancipation and birth rates fall, which will result in a few years in greater difficulty to ensure the sustainability of the welfare state and in particular of pensions, Social Security, caring for dependent family members… In that sense, there should be far greater awareness.
The problem is that in the Basque Country in particular and at State level in general, there is excessive confidence in the ability of families to withstand the crisis and its consequences. This is a highly family-oriented model in this regard and it is considered that if young people cannot find work, well, they can all live at home with their parents, benefit from their help and this avoids situations of extreme poverty and social exclusion. However, in the medium-term, this leads to important problems, and in this regard they are not taking the youth unemployment issue seriously enough. Other European countries have taken it seriously and are achieving good results. We need the public administrations and all stakeholders (unions, employers, businesses, associations, foundations, etc.) to cooperate and coordinate their efforts to achieve better results.
-Regarding the forthcoming edition of BYEF, do you think some of the issues put forward these days should be addressed in depth?
Yes, that would be very interesting because, in fact, some clues and some ideas have been put forward during the sessions, but they have to be studied in greater depth. What would be interesting is to conduct comparative analyses, i.e. see how the dual model has been applied in several countries and to what extent it can be adapted to the Basque Country, for example. We should, therefore, look at some aspects related to dual training or social dialogue in greater depth. These are important elements because, after all, the goal is not only to establish a diagnosis and put forward proposals; these proposals would then have to be translated into policy and concrete measures. The challenge for the coming months and years is precisely that; moving from theory to practice.
-Speaking of social dialogue, are the divisions between the trade unions in the Basque Country a problem?
The divisions between the trade unions as such are not the problem; there are several unions representing different sensibilities in many countries. Another issue is the level of representation those trade unions may have in the Basque Country (the membership rate is 24%, higher than in the rest of the State and France, but much lower than in Nordic countries). We need foster a culture of social dialogue and collective negotiations. Especially by promoting a vision of shared benefit, i.e. that each party can benefit from those conversations and not seeking a winner / loser situation. The current system leads to a terrible level of dialogue, a higher level of conflict and, in addition, there are international studies that show it has a negative impact on economic growth and job creation. In this sense, if social dialogue improved, there would be greater economic growth, increased job creation and increased competitiveness.
-What do you think a Youth Employment Decade can contribute?
One of the fundamental merits of the Novia Salcedo initiative is that it has placed the problem on the table. To the extent you have media coverage, that means entering the media agenda, and, therefore, the government, political parties and companies have to state their position on this problem and can no longer pretend it doesn’t exist. They have to take steps to address this situation because the media pressure and, consequently, social pressure will also increase in the months and years ahead. In this regard, it is important to insist on this issue, to talk about it because then it will pass from the media agenda to politics and the administrations will have to adopt ambitious plans in this field.