Supporting NEET youth: Experiences from the European Union

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Young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEET) attract increasing research and policy attention across the world, including in South Africa. Since 2013, all countries in the European Union (EU) have started to design and implement a “Youth Guarantee” (YG) programme that aims to support young people in making successful transitions through education and into the labour market.

Officially, EU member states commit to support young people under the age of 25, within four months of leaving school or losing a job, to find a “good quality job suited to their education, skills or experience; or acquire the education, skills and experience required to find a job in the future through an apprenticeship, traineeship or continued education”. The YG requires both immediate, programmatic interventions to increase young people’s employability and longer-term, large-scale structural reforms to “training, job-search and education systems to drastically improve the transition from school to work and the employability of young people” (ibid).

In short, the YG takes on a transversal approach to improve existing systems and integrate them with services. Additional interventions are put in place where necessary.

The YG also emphasises to “identify and activate those furthest away from the labour market (NEETs)” and “establishing new tools and strategies with all those who have access to these […] young people” (ibid).

Whilst the YG is an EU-wide initiative, conceptualisation and implementation vary across and within member states to allow the countries to take into account differences in relevant factors.

These include their different economies and conditions of the labour market; existing active labour market policies and other regulations; institutional frameworks; and the various profiles of NEET young people.

This Basic Package of Support (BPS) project included research and consultation to learn from the experiences of designing, piloting and implementing the “Youth Guarantee” programme in the different contexts of EU member states. This informed the conceptualisation and design of a programme tailored to the South African context and the lived realities of our youth.

The research team took a specific interest in best practices in a few selected countries: Spain, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Portugal and Greece. The team reviewed existing documentation, conducted telephone interviews with some of the YG coordinators and convened an expert meeting in Brussels with various EU country experts who have been involved in designing, planning, piloting and implementing the YG.

Critically, the research showed that the YG model is an activation strategy more than a job matching or job creation programme.

More than aiming to guarantee a job for youth, the approach is about finding ways to attract young people to the programme and to help them onto pathways appropriate to their individual circumstances that will ultimately lead them back into education or the labour market. There are number of crucial aspects to the design of the YG.

Integrated services
The YG implementation centres around the integration of services with young people in mind. These can take various forms. For example, Finland brings together a range of youth-relevant services from different government departments in “one-stop” shops. A central contact person welcomes the young visitors there and briefly assesses the youth’s situation to see what services they need. A central system tracks the services that a young person accesses.

The integration of services can, however, also happen through a case management approach where an individual counsellor assesses and then directs a young person to the follow-up services that they need. In some cases, the referral may be straightforward, whereas others may require a more hands-on support approach from the counsellor. Counsellors should be well trained to be able to build relationships of trust, but also to detect complex needs (e.g. trauma support, soft-skills training, housing needs, debts, risk behaviour, etc.) to ensure accurate support and referral to services.

In all cases, young people are actively involved in the decisions and these always start from a deep understanding of the young person’s situation and needs.

When youth request advice on education or employment pathways, most countries apply assessment tools with a view to understanding their needs and providing them with relevant and tailored support in a holistic way. The personalised profiling approach leads to individualised pathways and activation measures for young people.

Providing a continuum of meaningful support
For young people who are NEET and often experience multi-layered and complex challenges, the provision of ongoing and meaningful support is essential. When a young person has found his or her way to a support service, the system should be set up to ensure the youth does not later again become disconnected. Therefore, counsellors remain available throughout the period of searching for reconnection and, in several instances, also after a young person has completed a (re)connection opportunity such as education or a work placement. In that case, meetings take place to help mitigate new challenges or to support the youth to connect to the next opportunity.

The EU experience shows that, for many young people, these face-to-face interactions and the continuum of support are critical for the success of the intervention.

Multiple and revolving “doors”
EU experts highlight the need to create several “doors” in the layers of a young person’s journey to allow for different ways of (eventually) reconnecting to education, employment or other public services. This is especially important to facilitate outreach and connection with those more vulnerable young people who are disengaged and not actively looking for work and/or training opportunities – and who may also experience other challenges.

Creating multiple “doors” implies that a network of services is built. These may range from formal points of access – such as public employment services (PES) – to more informal support offered through walk-in information centres and street-based outreach workers who go to shopping malls and other public places where young people meet. At the first informal contact, young people are encouraged to register or provided information on the services that they could access once registered. The first contact is a crucial stage of building trust and sharing information that can lay the foundation for further guidance work.

Another, more formal, “door” is that of the PES, where youth can also request career guidance or coaching support to help determine their pathways to training or employment. Youth are registered there and, in Belgium for example, a case management approach allows for young people to be followed and supported over a longer period by the services they are connected to.

Additional “doors” are the various other points of contact that young people may have, such as institutes of higher learning or community centres – these all distribute information and provide a connection to the central PES system. Another connection point are e-Portals – online platforms such as those used in Spain to signpost young people to the YG and get them to register for it.

Of importance is that no “door” on which a NEET youth knocks for assistance can be a wrong door.

All “doors” should lead to a support service that places young people at the centre. To these young people can opt in when they feel ready.

In addition, EU experiences show that young people who are far removed from education or the labour market are unlikely to immediately achieve sustainable outcomes in the YG programme. For them, the design of a reconnection and follow-up mechanism, known as a “revolving door” system, proved to be critical. The European experience illustrates that high proportions of re-entrants of youth into the programme are not a sign of failure but of youth finding their way back to the system. In other words, that young people have made a shift from being disconnected to being reconnected.

A partnership-based model
EU experts emphasise that partnerships at national, regional and local levels between various government departments and stakeholders are key to making the overall programme design and implementation a success. In most EU countries, key partners of the YG are national departments responsible for employment, education, youth, the public employment service, social partners and national youth councils and organisations. Key partners at local level include regional and municipal authorities, service providers, private sector entities and youth organisations.

Many EU countries are increasingly establishing two-tier cooperation arrangements (national and local levels) on the YG programme. The partnership established at national level provides the strategic framework for the implementation of the YG, while partnerships at the local/municipal level are responsible for the service delivery.

Local-level implementation is key to the strength of the YG, including quality checks and good partnerships among service providers; and a good knowledge of the local landscape in terms of services, opportunities and challenges affecting youth outcomes.

Such partnerships are hard to set up, though, due to challenges such as the siloed nature of the work and reporting requirements of government departments, the lack of willingness or ability to collaborate or to share data to support a case-work approach, the lack of local-level information and data on what services are available. In some EU countries, pilot projects begun to develop partnerships alongside a support and referral system in local areas and for a particular sub-group of youth to explore the methodology and draw lessons for scaling up later on.

Implications for design
Given the highly complex realities that youth in South Africa face, gathering a thorough understanding of the multiple deprivations and barriers facing young people who are NEET is crucial. Those barriers will differ depending on the socio-economic and geographic context of young people; understanding local realities is therefore important.

Considering the local peculiarities of young people is also important to help identifying opportunities to create “multiple doors” that can provide young people with information on and connection to the programme.

Large numbers of young people in South Africa seek to reconnect to education or job opportunities for an extended period and may become discouraged.

Clarifying pathways and supporting young people’s agency to take up those pathways need to be an essential building block of the intervention.

Well-trained guidance counsellors who work with young people on determining the possible pathways and who provide insights into and facilitate connections to available services will play a central role in working towards the integration of services from the perspective of the young person.

However, youth need to be made aware that the programme extends beyond placing them in a job as they first may require support in other spheres of their lives. Therefore, general awareness should also be built from the start, including among policymakers, that large proportions of youth may enter the programme, orientate, try, re-orientate, and try again. Thus, putting in place a continuum of support as young people navigate their way along the pathways is equally important to avoid renewed disconnect. These aspects need to be taken into account in the design and cost estimations for the programme to be sustainable.

Special emphasis needs to be on the creation of partnerships at the local level that allow for services to work together and be presented as an integrated platform.

Given the complexity of the programme, the EU is gradually building up experience in the monitoring and evaluation of the YG. EU member states and other organisations such as the International Labour Organisation have created a network for mutual learning and sharing. The European Commission, in particular, helps monitor the implementation of the national schemes and facilitates mutual learning. In due time, this can be another source of experience for South Africa to tap into.

South Africa is not the only country looking into supporting its youth who are NEET by learning from the EU approach. Other non-EU countries that are considering implementing components of the YG are South Korea, New Zealand, Gulf region (Maghreb), and Ghana.

This workstream of the BPS project was led by Evelien Storme (Marie-Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at University of Leuven/SALDRU, UCT), and Ariane De Lannoy (SALDRU, UCT). Ruth Santos-Brien (Director, ICF) provides invaluable insights into the design and implementation of the EU YG across various country contexts and coordinated and chaired the expert meeting in Brussels.