Several months after graduating from a technical college, Mohammed Aden remains unemployed, despite sending out a flurry of resumes for entry-level jobs in electronic engineering, his chosen field.
Among Aden’s friends and roommates in the youth hostel where he lives in a gritty section of northwest London, the story is the same: There’s little work, and certainly no good full-time jobs even for those with college or technical degrees.
“From all my friends, I can’t count one person who’s working,” said 21-year-old Aden, a Somali immigrant who moved to London about eight years ago. “Some say there’s no point in going to college if you can’t get a job.”
Europe’s economic crisis has fueled a spiraling problem of unemployment among young people, with job seekers aged 15-24 more than twice as likely to be out of work as the average European. Policy makers and experts are warning that a growing number of them could remain locked out of the economy for years to come, posing a long-term challenge to growth and raising questions about the fundamental health of the continent’s labor force.
The European Commission has pledged to address the problem by financing work placement and training programs in the hardest hit nations. But a meeting of European leaders Wednesday in Brussels failed to advance any new proposals, and critics say that homegrown solutions are needed in countries such as Britain, where the problem began long before the recession.
Across the European Union, youth unemployment has skyrocketed from 15.1 percent in December 2007 to 22.6 percent this March, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based statistical arm of wealthy countries.
In Italy and Ireland, roughly one in three people aged 15-24 is looking for work; in Spain and Greece it’s one in two. In the United Kingdom and France the rate is close to the continentwide average, but that represents a sharp rise for the U.K., where it was 13.6 percent in 2007.
With almost 1 million young Britons classified as NEETs – not in education, employment or training programs – there are growing worries for “a generation that has really become lost and has not been on the radar,” said Betty Campbell of LEAP, a charity that promotes job skills among underprivileged groups.
The figures aren’t merely academic. Last summer, London was struck by its worst riots in nearly two decades after police shots and killed a black man in Tottenham, in north London. Although the unrest began as a response to what protesters called harsh police tactics, many experts said it also was a direct result of high unemployment rates and widespread deprivation, primarily in black communities.
The Work Foundation, a London research center, concluded in a report released Wednesday that the high population of NEETs constitutes “one of the most serious social problems facing the country.”
“Where the riots started, you have some of the highest levels of (youth) unemployment. You’re talking in excess of 50 percent” in some areas, said Mubin Haq, the director of policy and grants for the Trust for London charity. “That’s shockingly high. A lot of those people are black or minorities from very poor communities who just don’t have the connections in terms of getting through into the labor market.”
Over the past three decades, a dramatic transformation in the British economy – not unlike that experienced in the United States – has reduced the number of jobs available in traditional sectors such as manufacturing and added large numbers in sales and customer service, where so-called soft skills, such as communication and motivation, are prized.
Demand also has grown for high-wage, high-skill jobs in technology and other fields, but experts say that schools aren’t turning out enough qualified applicants. A recent study found that paying youth unemployment benefits would cost the British treasury 4.8 billion pounds (about $7.5 billion) this year, more than the budget for further education for 16- to 19-year-olds in England.
“There’s been a real failure in many ways to invest in young people to get them ready for the job market,” Haq said.
Public budget cuts also have slashed funding for groups such as LEAP, which no longer receives government support. On a recent afternoon, about two dozen people, several in their late teens and early 20s, sat for an employment workshop at LEAP’s offices in working-class northwest London. Carmen Antiqueira, a no-nonsense instructor in a black suit, ran through a series of do’s and don’ts for a job interview: Don’t say your hobby is watching TV. Do talk about work you do around the house. Don’t swagger into the employer’s office; show respect.
“There’s a serious recession going on out there,” she admonished the class. “How are you going to make yourself stand out?”
A few years ago, the organization could place nearly three-quarters of the people who completed its three-week training program in entry-level jobs such as bank tellers, transport workers and shop assistants. Now that rate has fallen to about half.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has promoted new apprenticeship programs that aim to give young people valuable work experience, but critics say that much of the money has gone to private training programs that don’t lead to jobs.
Part of the problem, some say, is that older people who’ve lost their jobs are competing with younger, inexperienced workers for entry-level posts. Jaya Bassi, a 25-year-old who graduated from law school last year, couldn’t find a job in the legal field so she took a part-time position as saleswoman at a shoe store in central London. There she works alongside other 20-somethings with degrees in business and information technology.
“It feels like there’s no hope,” she said. “Realistically, I think it’s another five years at a minimum like this, and that makes it even more difficult. When someone asks you what you’ve been doing for five years, what do you say?”
More than half the NEET population remains that way for a year or longer, according to the Work Foundation report, and experts think that the economic costs of youth unemployment – from benefits payments to lost productivity and lower wages earned when people do find jobs – reach well into the billions of pounds for Britain each year.
“If you don’t deal with it as soon as possible, to get young people into that first job, they face long-term scarring,” said Mark Keese, the head of the OECD’s employment analysis and policy. “Even when we do get to a broader recovery, they’ll still face the problem of being jobless, their skills being devalued and their motivation being lost.”