An interview with Janne Geurts, founder and Director of the International Youth Job Creation Summit
1. When you came out of uni for the first time how was the job market?
I went to university in the Netherlands, and by the time I finished, the job market hadn’t been hit by the economic crisis yet. I had done many things during my studies at uni, and because of this I had built up a reasonable and professional network who offered me entrances for work. I started off doing smaller assignments for different employers, but soon decided to work for only one employer, my previous university. When my boyfriend got a great career opportunity in the UK, I decided to leave this job, and take on the adventure and move with him. I didn’t expect at all that the job market would be so bad over here. In the first 6 months I was filling out application forms every day, but was never even invited for a job interview. Of course it took me a while to understand the UK job market, how to write your CV here, where to look for jobs, etc. but still, I never ever thought that it would be so difficult to find something here. I started off by applying to jobs that matched my education, experience and interest, but probably that was too ambitious. So I lowered my applications to lower-entrance level jobs, but also that didn’t work. After a few months I decided to do an unpaid internship, because sitting at home and doing nothing made me feel miserable, useless, and as if I stopped my personal development. I continued applying for paid jobs after the internship, because it ate almost all my savings, and I simply couldn’t afford another unpaid internship. Because I now had relevant work experience in the UK, I was very often invited for an interview, and made it to the last round at least 20x. Unfortunately I was always rejected for the same reason: that English is not my first language. This makes sense in a way, but was very frustrating. Then I found Peace Child, for whom I started off as an intern again. This time I decided not to care about income, because content-wise the job was my dream job because it contains everything I am passionate about: education/training, tackling youth unemployment and working with young people. After a while Peace Child employed me, which is great. I still love what I’m doing every day!
2. What made you set up the ‘Youth Job Creation Summit’?
I started to work on a EU funded project for Peace Child, which was about creating a network of European non-formal training providers in youth job creation, in order for them to exchange best practice and experience. I created this network, but realised that an online network is very nice, but that real ‘magic’ happens when people meet face-to-face. I organised a smaller meeting for the most interesting partners from this network, to co-develop a two-day enterprise skills training for young people called Enterprise YOU!. The meeting was a big success, but hadn’t reached all members of the network, because designing a training programme with 200 people just doesn’t make sense. Therefore, I wanted to organise a summit for the members of this EU Youth Job Creation Network, in order for them to meet face to face and exchange best practice. When we talked about this in Peace Child, this idea evolved from a summit for my European network, to an international summit open to everyone: young people, business, policy makers, employers, service providers, educators, etc. who are all passionate about solving the youth unemployment crisis. Because this crisis is not only a crisis in the UK and in the EU, but a global crisis. And also, there is much to learn from what is happening elsewhere, for all parties. We therefore tried to bring a variety of audiences together from different parts of the world to find solutions that work.
3. Did you find it hard to get companies and politicians to engage when speaking about young people?
We didn’t have trouble finding people speaking about young people. Business, service providers and young people themselves are all very concerned about the employment situation for young people, as it is on the top of the agenda. At one point we almost had more speakers than participants! We did, however, have trouble to engage big institutions like the ILO, and the UN. I literally received emails from them that they didn’t know how to answer our summit question: how to create a billion job opportunities for young people over the next decade. That was very depressing, especially because job creation is their task. From the other hand, Andris Piebalgs, the EU commissioner for development was the first to commit on a keynote speech, which was very encouraging.
4. Do you think the lack of political engagement among young people is one of the reasons why they have been ignored for so long?
I don’t know if there is a lack of political engagement among young people. I see many young people who are concerned about today’s major problems. Peace Child International organises the World Youth Congress Series, and there ranges between a few hundred to up to 5000 young people coming together to talk about, and learn about, how to take action in issues that concern them, like job creation. I think the reason why young people have been ignored is a rather cultural, or maybe traditional reason. Young people are not seen as the ones ‘who know it all’, or the ones who can influence the system. Have you ever seen a 16 year old prime minister, or a 13 year old teacher? Peace Child is very passionate about turning this around and to empower young people to take action, and to be the change they wish to see in the world, because our experience tells us that young people see things, or say things, that older people don’t or can’t. Simply because they are young people, who look at the world with fresh eyes and come up with crazy ideas. And because young people are the ones who experience issues like youth unemployment. So why wouldn’t they be able to come up with great solutions?
5. What is the simplest way to finding the 1bn jobs the youth of today require?
I don’t think there is one answer to that question. The summit showed us that there are many many great initiatives around the world, that work towards finding the 1bn job opportunities for young people. The solution lies probably in the diversity of these initiatives. Collaboration between the initiatives and good practice would be a great step forward, so that young people, service providers, business, and policy makers are all aware of ‘what’s out there’, and that people don’t have to invent the wheel twice. Another answer to how to find the 1bn job opportunities is to start with yourself, and to question yourself what you can do to help young people into employment. Together, we are stronger.
6. Every time we speak to young people, or cover an event dealing with young people, the topic of education always comes into play. What do you think of Mr Gove’s changes to the educational system? Do you agree with them?
Mr. Gove’s motivation for changing the syllabus – so youth receive the skills that employers demand – is admirable. However, if we are talking about youth stalking their futures on a single exam, I feel that this is a regressive step that only goes to encourage greater rote learning – is this what employers are calling out for? No, they want people who are able to find solutions for themselves not automatons who are 100% reliant on external input. When, during a job, do you sit down in silence writing like a madman for several hours – just regurgitating information? Also, there is no ‘one path that suits all’, and when young people need more time, this can affect their self-confidence – exactly one of the most important assets they need to be employable!
To totally do away with course work focuses academic recognition on a very narrow set of skills, when really what we ought to be doing is expanding young people’s skills. There are many more insightful ways in which to approach this, such as by embedding entrepreneurship at the heart of education or to take a more radical approach and run schools as if they were social enterprises. By following this approach youth absorb employability skills as they learn – there is no distinction effectively between the two – they exist in harmony.
7. The youth job creation summit centred a lot of discussion on enterprise and entrepreneurship, which is all well and good. However, considering that only 30% of people are able to work for themselves, do you think aiming at entrepreneurship is the way forward?
Yes, there was an emphasis placed on entrepreneurship at the summit, but there was also a recognition that not everyone is destined to be an entrepreneur. However, even those who will never start up their own business can really benefit from having entrepreneurship embedded within the education curriculum from an early age. Entrepreneurship offers a wide range of important life skills that can serve youth in areas other than business – it helps to instill confidence, creativity and a pro-active mentality – all characteristics that can make someone eminently more employable. So, entrepreneurship in education is manifestly not just about the 30% or so future entrepreneurs ,it is inclusive – much more so than some other subjects. Otherside of the educational realm, entrepreneurship is a hugely valuable tool in offsetting the crippling effects of youth unemployment. Even the biggest company has humble origins but from this starting point they can grow and as they grow they employ more and more people. Admittedly, not every startup is destined to be the next Apple – most obviously are not – and still some others will fail – but its much better to fail trying than doing nothing at all.
8. What industries would you identify as offering potential in providing future employment to young people?
Although it is something of a cliché let’s look at the example of Germany. The German economy has traditionally had a very strong manufacturing base. They have consolidated this strength by building an educational system around the demands of industry – which offers youth an obvious career path and gives industry a clear role in the education of their future workforce. Exporting an exact replica of the German system abroad isn’t however the answer – it would have to be adapted to fit in with the overall structure of a particular economy – play to that economy’s strengths if you will. But the principle of building closer ties between education and industry is fundamentally sound. It is essentially impossible to identify a single industry that will simply hoover up all unemployment that is unrealistic – mining in Ireland will never be what it is to Australia for example. Areas in which there certainly is scope for widespread future employment would be in the IT sector – which, increasingly freed from technological limitations, can see startups spring up in seemingly the most unlikely of places. Another sector where future growth is likely to be significant is in the social and the green economy – we all know the environmental issues but we are potentially on the cusp of a “carbon bubble” whose impact would dwarf that of the current financial crisis – therefore adopting sustainable principles is a smart long term strategy. Eventually, the social economy, combining business with ‘doing good’, can also be a solution that can help young people into employment while helping solve the unemployment crisis at the same time.
9. Taking into consideration Greece and Spain, do you think the EU was a positive or negative influence to youth employment?
The EU is an easy target right now – before the crisis, when economies were booming there was significantly less ambivalence towards it as an institution but predictably this ambivalence has surfaced, now that things have taken a nosedive. During the boom, the domestic policies of many countries – the PIGS let’s say – was a study in short-termism – taking the easy buck while it was available and volubly shouting down anyone who dared to raise a dissenting voice. However, the response of the EU has been painfully slow – the Crisis is of school age now and still we await anything that could be called even a small breakthrough. For example, how long have we been hearing about the Youth Guarantee Scheme without seeing any real action on the ground. The EU has been responsible for much good during its time – to date its reaction or lack thereof to youth unemployment has been all the more disappointing due to its heritage.
10. A recent survey showed that in Ghana, graduate unemployment is rising. Do you think Africa will soon face a similar issue to Europe with regards to Graduates?
What employers are telling us that “graduates” lack the skills to carry out the jobs that on paper they are qualified to do. This is a pattern that keeps cropping up over and over again – and although I fear that I may sound like something of a broken record it ultimately all goes back to education failing to provide youth with the necessary skills. Another problem is that certain programmes are heavily oversubscribed – thousands may be doing a course in architecture let’s say, when there are only a limited number of jobs available in that area. The end result is that upon graduating as an architect, the odds of you actually finding a job in your field aren’t great. To help solve this youth need to have access to a modern career advice service that adequately directs youth toward a career – Careers advice should do what it says on the tin. To achieve this, careers advice needs to move from the peripheries of the curriculum to take up a more central role, where its value as a subject is recognised and youth can reap the benefits. Of course, the careers advice service needs to be continuously evolving to reflect changes in the economy – it is incredibly difficult to predict what the future jobs market will look like, but youth should at least have as much information at their fingertips as is possible – to help them make informed decisions.
As we move further and further away from the idea of a job for life, in the future, education is likely to evolve into a lifelong process with people continuously seeking to upgrade their skills, so that they can remain attractive to employers.