How the Greek crisis has spawned a new generation of NEETS

An EU program is helping youths who are neither in education, training or employment gain access to the job market

María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo
Cristina Lekka, a 19-year-old sociology student, is worried about her job prospects.
Cristina Lekka, a 19-year-old sociology student, is worried about her job prospects.Carlos Martínez

In Greece, the worst crisis in the history of the euro zone has indefinitely delayed access to the job market for youths aged between 15 and 24. Despite incipient signs of an economic recovery, Greece still holds the worst record for youth unemployment in the entire European Union: it hovered around 60% at the height of the crisis (2013-2014) and is now in the range of 44%.

The Greek NEETSan acronym for Not in Employment, Education or Training, and whose Spanish equivalent is nini – are a generation trapped in no-man’s land: they are outside the classrooms and outside the job market, or in the best of cases they hold subpar jobs that bear no relation to their studies. But the same could be said about Spanish youths: Spain ranks second for EU youth unemployment (39%). In 2016, 26.9% of Greek 15- to 29-year-olds and 22.7% of Spanish ones were NEETS, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In the best of cases they hold subpar jobs that bear no relation to their studies

Although it is “a group that is very hard to trace for statistical purposes, the number of Greek NEETS has been reduced 27%” thanks to European programs such as the Youth Employment Initiative (YEI),” explains Panayota Stamatiu, of the Greek Labor Ministry’s labor integration department.

“In 2013 there were 230,000 NEETS in Greece. By 2017 there were 158,000,” adds Stamatiu. According to this government official, 60.2% of YEI program participants received a job offer or a traineeship, and 53.9% of those who completed the program found a job.

The YEI program was launched in 2013 to fight youth unemployment in European countries. Managed jointly by the EU and member states, it is now into its second phase in countries such as Greece, where the youth unemployment rate tops 25%, and the age range has been expanded to 29.

Greek communist youths protesting the bailout program in Athens.
Greek communist youths protesting the bailout program in Athens.Getty Images

“European contribution is less than a third of the budget that the Greek government spends overall on fighting youth unemployment,” underscores Jarilaos Floros, director general of EU funds management at the Labor Ministry.

The YEI is part of the larger Human Resources Development, Education and Lifelong Learning program of the European Social Fund, which has a budget of €3.1 billion for the 2014-2020 period.

“The YEI, through skills and training programs combined with paid internships in the private sector, aims to give youths their first taste of the job market,” explains Yorgos Ioanidis, head of the European Social Fund programs management department at the Greek Economy Ministry. “Youth unemployment in Greece is not just a consequence of the crisis, it was already a trait of the earlier job market.”

Youth unemployment was already a trait of the earlier job market

Yorgos Ioanidis, Economy Ministry

The program has been especially successful in the tourism sector, where 16,000 youths have found jobs. “The vast majority continues to work in the sector after their first experience,” says a source at the Greek Tourism Federation, one of several social agents to partner with the program in Greece.

Elleni Kallidi, a 24-year-old resident of Níkea, located within the belt of the port city of Piraeus – an area hard hit by the crisis – joined the program after completing her food technology studies last year. “I am doing an internship at a pharmacy,” she explains. “When I finished my studies I started sending my resume to a lot of job sites. One day I got a call about the YEI program, so I filled out the forms and a few days later I started going to an academy to learn about sales, marketing, customer care and even body language.”

Later, says Kallidi, came job interviews, then more theory (how to make a presentation, new computer skills) and more training for five additional weeks.

“The most notable part of the program, besides the skills I have acquired, is that when I’m done I’ll be able to add this training to my resume as work experience. That’s really useful,” she says.

The beneficiaries of YEI come from a variety of academic backgrounds. There are university graduates such as Selvia Karabrahimi, who has a degree in journalism, and people with high school diplomas such as Dímitra Xatzoglou. The former is a trainee at a clothing store, while the latter is attending a seminar on sales and marketing and interning at a bookstore.

Brain drain

Greece has also experienced a significant brain drain: around 250,000 qualified youths have left the country in under a decade due to the crisis, notes Dimitris Papadimoulis, of the ruling Syriza party and who is also vice-president of the European Parliament.

“Youth unemployment can only be fought with growth, and that is why we have to invest in R&D, especially when the bailout program ends [in August],” he says. “We need to turn the brain drain into the brain game, and also put an end to low-quality jobs where highly qualified youths are forced to work as waiters or in hotels. The key to that is to accelerate investment and development. Fortunately, after the first positive data registered in 2017, the economy is breathing again and the European Commission is expecting growth of 2.5% for the next few years. We are on the right track.”

Cristina Lekka is a 19-year-old sociology student at Pantheion University in Athens, and she already has experience with precarious employment. She has worked as a waitress several times, and fears that this might be her future once she graduates.

“I know that things are very tough, and I’d rather not leave the country, but available jobs have workdays of over 12 hours at a bar for €30 a day. I want to specialize in criminology and find a job in my field, but honestly I don’t know if I’ll manage it.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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