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By Emily Wicken

In their September 2012 Global Employment Outlook, the International Labour Organization (ILO) drew particular attention to the plight of the young worker worldwide.  They project that the global youth unemployment rate (youth being defined as between the ages of 15 and 24) will climb from 12.7 percent in 2012 to 12.9 percent by 2017.  This is in contrast to the overall unemployment rate, which is expected to remain steady worldwide at 6 percent between 2012 and 2017.  The projected rates of youth unemployment vary, of course, by region.  In East Asia, the youth unemployment rate is projected to increase to 10.4 percent by 2017, up from 9.5 percent, while in the developed economies and the European Union, the rate is actually projected to decline from 17.5 percent in 2012 to 15.6 percent in 2017.  However, the latter figure is not actually cause for celebration – the report notes this is “principally because discouraged young people are withdrawing from the labor market and not because of stronger hiring activity among youngsters.”

We turn to additional ILO data to see what the picture looks like in some of the countries with top-performing education systems, to see if the strength of the primary and secondary systems mitigates to some degree the proportion of young people who are struggling to find work (Figure 1).  The results are somewhat surprising.  Finland, widely acknowledged as having one of the best primary and secondary education systems in the world, also has the highest unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 19 years, and one of the highest unemployment rates for people aged 20 to 24 according to the ILO data.  Singapore and the Netherlands, which have strongly integrated vocational and technical pathways available to students before the age of 18, on the other hand (and unsurprisingly), have quite low youth unemployment rates.

Figure 1

(Source: International Labour Organization) (Source: International Labour Organization)

But before jumping to conclusions, it is important to dig deeper into how countries define youth unemployment, because this in and of itself can impact how well a country appears to be doing in terms of moving young people into the workforce.  For the chart above, the ILO definition of “unemployed” included people who were not in paid employment, were available for employment, and were seeking employment.  The ILO points out that these measures are difficult to compare across countries because education systems vary widely, and in some countries a young person may be considered “employed,” for example, if they are engaging in a vocational training program part-time.  In another country, the labor force may be considered as including only the youth who have dropped out of secondary school or who have earned a secondary degree.  This may result in inflated rates of “unemployment” in some countries, for example, Nordic countries, that have more modular vocational and post-secondary education programs and other strong supports for young people, resulting in young people pursuing a combination of part-time training, employment, or other activities such as international travel before settling into a career.

Fortunately, there is another international measure that allows us to compare the proportion of young people who are struggling to enter the workforce or the education sector.  That is the percent of youth not in employment, education or training, often abbreviated as NEET.  The OECD provides data on the percent of NEET youth in most of its member countries; below, we have again shown the data for the top performers (Figure 2).  The chart provides information for three different categories of young people: youth who are unemployed (that is, looking for work), and not in education or training; youth who are inactive (that is, not looking for work), and not in education or training; and the NEET rate, which includes youth who are either unemployed or inactive, and not in education or training.  The NEET rate is represented by the total length of the bar on the chart, as it is a combination of the two other measures.

Figure 2

(Source: OECD) (Source: OECD)

The Netherlands, which has one of the lowest rates of youth unemployment by ILO measures, also has a very low NEET rate.  Notably, just 1.5 percent of youth in the Netherlands who are not in education or training and are actively seeking work are unable to find jobs.  This is just over 25 percent of the overall OECD rate of 5.8 percent, and significantly smaller than the EU27 (European Union) rate of 6.6 percent.  Denmark and Finland, two Nordic countries which, by overall youth unemployment measures, do not look particularly good, also have very low NEET rates.  These low rates are likely due to the fact that these countries, and particularly the Netherlands and Denmark, have very strong school-to-work pipelines, with multiple pathways for all types of students.  Students in these countries have access to various workplace learning experiences and apprenticeships, as well as a close relationship between industry and these training programs.  On the other end of the spectrum, the United States, New Zealand and the United Kingdom all have high NEET rates in addition to their high youth unemployment rates, suggesting that job training programs or pathways into the workforce in these countries are lacking.

One concern, however, is the possibility of a growing connection between youth unemployment rates and youth NEET rates.  The ILO points out in their Global Employment Outlook that as new economic sectors grow and old sectors decline, people who were either employed in or being trained for jobs in the old sectors will face the loss of these jobs with a sense of discouragement, meaning that NEET rates will rise following the rise in unemployment rates.  This is why it is so important to have education connected to current workplace skill requirements, and particularly, to ensure that vocational and technical education programs are linked closely to industry, so that youth are being prepared for the jobs of the future.