Science and technology skills key to tackling EU youth unemployment

Addressing the 'STEM skills gap' would help improve the effectiveness of EU policies aimed at reducing youth unemployment and boosting growth, argues Afke Schaart

By Afke Schaart

07 Feb 2014

In a recent interview with the Parliament Magazine, European parliament president Martin Schulz was asked what priority issue he would campaign on following his official appointment as Socialist candidate for president of the European commission.

His answer was clear - "to deliver in the shortest possible time, action and policies to tackle Europe's youth unemployment."

This was echoed at the World Economic Forum 2014 annual meeting in Davos, where Irish prime minister, Enda Kelly, stated that "the single biggest crisis facing the European Union is the scale of unemployment among young people".

"... Since 2008, unemployment among 15-24 year olds in the EU has increased by 50 per cent. In total, there are 5.6 million unemployed young people in the EU - costing member states €153bn every year, according to Eurofound."

Likewise, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, cited concerns over stubbornly high levels of structural unemployment - largely due to a skills mismatch - citing current figures in Europe where 24 per cent of youth are unemployed.

Collectively, the common sentiment between policymakers, business leaders and civil society is that Europe risks setting the stage for a 'lost generation' of unemployed young people - which will consequently amplify levels of crime and civil unrest.

The numbers certainly speak for themselves: since 2008, unemployment among 15-24 year olds in the EU has increased by 50 per cent. In total, there are 5.6 million unemployed young people in the EU - costing member states €153bn every year according to Eurofound.

So what solutions have been proffered to counteract this worrying trend?

I have been encouraged by the launch of the EU's grand coalition for digital jobsback in March 2013. The partnerships it created between industry and civil society have already delivered training courses to an impressive 269,000 people, as well as filling an extra 2200 new digital jobs and over 5200 internships.

This success was built on at the World Economic Forum, where Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and vice president Neelie Kroes announced the Davos declaration on the grand coalition for digital jobs.

The declaration brought together corporate leaders and education providers to endorse EU targets for creating 100,000 new traineeships by 2015, modernising ICT training at schools, incentivising digital careers and promoting internationally accepted credentials.

I am proud to write that 13,500 of these internships will be provided by Microsoft, and we have also pledged our continued collaboration with three core European partners - the European Youth Forum, Telecentre Europe and Junior Achievement-Young Enterprise.

Each organisation has received a renewed grant to support young people in finding work by providing training that will foster work-readiness, talent and entrepreneurial spirit, and helping them find quality traineeships and internships.

In addition we are putting a renewed focus right at the beginning of education, where the digital revolution must start, by launching a pilot European coding camp in partnership with European Schoolnet to enthuse European teachers and students to gain a solid grasp on coding from an early stage and in a fun manner through Microsoft Kodu resources.

Students must learn how to create computer programmes instead of just using them as it encourages collaboration, new digital skills and develops a new way of thinking. I am enthusiastic to see progress to encourage European schools to add computer science and computer programming as part of the core curriculum in education.

Why is the focus on 'digital' skills and jobs? Well, jobs that require competency in a 'STEM' subject - science, technology, engineering and maths - largely form the basis of a digital career.

This sector is proven to command higher salaries and provide innovative opportunities for youth where jobs are otherwise lacking. Yet, according to the commission there will be a projected shortfall of up to 500,000 ICT professionals in Europe by 2015 - exacerbated chiefly by a decline in computing science graduates.

It's clear that too few graduates are entering the job market with the right qualifications to match market demand. Partly this is due to young people turning away from scientific studies at an early age, because they find them challenging or not relevant to their lives.

This can then create a negative perception of technical jobs when they make the school-to-work transition.

At the same time, effective teachers are the number one predictor of student success. Which means that in Europe, there also needs to be a focus on ensuring every teacher is a fluent user of computers, understanding the principles of how they work and even being able to write simple programmes.

Without the STEM skills gap being addressed, I believe the structural unemployment issues referred to by Klaus Schwab will be exacerbated, which in turn risks reducing the effectiveness of wider EU policy interventions to stimulate growth.

Youth unemployment is the biggest crisis facing Europe - but it doesn't have to be. Young people can achieve amazing things when they get the opportunity. Decision makers from the public and private sector need to work together to give them that opportunity.

Read the most recent articles written by Afke Schaart - 5G: EU must rethink business models and policies

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