2023 is the European Year of Skills during which the European Commission wants to give fresh impetus to training and lifelong learning, especially in view of the green and digital transitions. Up-skilling however is not a panacea to all forms of unemployment and today's interviewee Yonnec Polet (BE/PES) holds that a reallocation of public resources is necessary to create employment where the market otherwise won't.
In this article, Yonnec Polet, Deputy Mayor of Berchem-Sainte-Agathe (Brussels) and CoR rapporteur, discusses his opinion on addressing long term unemployment in the EU, a plight which affects up to 6 million people.
The own-initiative opinion is titled Zero long-term unemployment: the local and regional perspective. As an example of what can be done at local level, it refers to a project aimed at providing adapted employment opportunities to individuals who have been without work for a year or longer.
In 2016, the French parliament unanimously passed a motion to trial this project in ten localities to provide employment responding to specific needs of the area and the capacities of the long-term unemployed who are willing and able to work. It has since been unrolled in Brussels, Wallonia, Groningen (NE) and Marienthal (AT).
The concept of "Zero long-term unemployment territories"
The first key principle of this initiative, Yonnec Polet explains, is the conviction that no one is unemployable: "everyone has skills and these skills can be used to benefit themselves, society and their community."
The second principle is that there is no lack of work to accomplish in society: there are social and environmental needs which go unmet and require the creation of a variety of useful jobs.
The third principle is that a lack of money is not the problem: employment deprivation costs more than creating additional jobs.
Answering social needs while providing work
"Let me give you concrete examples of projects I visited in Paris' 13th arrondissement; they created an employment orientated enterprise [entreprise à but d'emploi] which hires people indefinitely through government funds, paying them at least a minimum wage. It's a voluntary choice of the worker and not imposed on them, as some 'back to work' schemes do, which show poor results in the long term."
An employment-oriented company could choose to open a bike repair shop – but not if one already exists in the area. Another activity is social restaurants: these cater to a niche audience and do not create competition for conventional restaurants. Rapid delivery, for example using cargo bikes, also exists.
"One project, I found fantastic was called the caretaker project (conciergerie). It's a team who are available for elderly people in the area and can be called upon to go do their shopping, help them attend medical appointments, to fix things they can't do alone.
"All these jobs respond to social needs that are generally not met by the traditional market economy and recreate social ties and pride for these people."
Upskilling people is not necessarily the solution
For Mr Polet, this response to long term unemployment is different to what he sees as the "classical" reaction to unemployment focused exclusively on upskilling: "not everyone is going to become a plumber or a computer scientist or a coach. No, there are some people who have more difficulties and so you have to adapt to each person."
Yonnec Polet believes there needs to be a shift away from managing unemployment exclusively as an "individual problem" which attributes blame and shame to a person to instead recognise that there is also a "collective responsibility".
A project that is being picked up by both interventionist and more economically liberal countries
"The Netherlands has had a very 'individual responsibility' approach until now" Mr Polet explains, "but even in the Netherlands they decided to adopt this project".
For him, the results speak for themselves and are sufficient to convince sceptics. Dutch authorities following this project "have the ambition to employ 250 people in Groningen" with two other Dutch cities beginning to copy the model.
The added value of involving the EU
As Mr Polet explains, EU-lead policies to protect and fund employment have already taken place: the Youth Guarantee saw EUR 9 billion invested to support citizens under 30 enter or remain in employment. The Netherlands and Belgium have called upon the European Social Fund Plus to co-finance up to 50% of certain employment focused projects, that's half local funding, half EU funding.
Mr Polet's draft opinion will be discussed at the next SEDEC Commission meeting on 17 February.
*This interview was done in framework of the CoR Young Elected Politician Programme.