Out of work
Unemployed youth face a tough time in austerity-stricken labor system
Posted: March 6, 2013
Take a ticket, sit down, and wait to be called: Daniel Vĕtrovský knows the drill by now. He has been going to his local labor office on and off for the past four years. Aged 22, Vĕtrovský is among a growing number of young people struggling to get on the job ladder in the Czech Republic.
"It's a little bit depressing," he says, his eyes sinking as he recalls his experiences so far. "If you don't have much money, it's really frustrating that you're just sending in your CV, applying for lots of jobs and not getting any feedback at all. I don't know what to do [as a career], so I'm only looking for part-time jobs, but these are terribly paid."
At the last count, there were nearly 100,000 under 25-year-olds out of work across the country, a rate of 20 percent the highest since the end of 2009. This unwelcome statistic mirrors that of the general population, with the overall unemployment rate hitting an all-time record of 8 percent in January, according to revised figures published by the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry Feb. 8.
Vĕtrovský, who left high school in 2008 with a diploma in geography and psychology, dropped out of university twice. After a short spell as a semi-professional football coach, he started his most recent job search last October.
Unable to make ends meet on his own, Vĕtrovský still lives at home, where he relies on financial support from his parents and grandparents. Although the labor office pays his health insurance, he cannot claim unemployment benefits because, like most people his age, he hasn't worked a minimum of 12 months in the past three years.
Vĕtrovský says he looks for vacancies on the Internet or in newspapers and applies to four or five jobs per week. Most of the time, though, he doesn't even hear back from employers, admitting his lack of a degree is proving a hindrance.
"School is expected to be a jump-start to university, so if you don't go to university, it's pretty hard to find a job," Vĕtrovský said. "They always care about experience, and they always want it on paper. They never say, 'OK we'll try you and we'll see.' "
As the economy grapples with a recession triggered by falling exports and weak consumer demand, employers have responded by cutting back on hiring, raising fears of a "lost generation" of young people. Analysts say they will be less employable in the future, won't possess the skills they need to fill positions and may even have long-term health problems.
So concerned are European officials about the rising joblessness among the Continent's youth that EU President Herman Van Rompuy pledged 6 billion euros of aid for projects to tackle unemployment across the 27-member bloc during a summit in Brussels last month.
"Studies show people who enter the job market at a time of recession suffer from average salary loss for their whole lives," said Daniel Münich, an economist at the Prague-based think-tank CERGE-EI. "This has a negative impact on the way they collect labor market experience and generate credentials."
While Vĕtrovský blames himself for not studying hard enough, he is angry at an education system that doesn't seem to be geared toward the labor market. The system, critics argue, fails to teach pupils basic workplace functions and prepare them for the office environment, offering instead a one-size-fits-all curriculum, where the emphasis is on learning facts rather than practical skills.
There is also a shortage of proper job advice, Vĕtrovský says. He hoped someone at his school would nudge him in the right direction and suggest a suitable career path, but this didn't happen.
"I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but actually it doesn't matter which subject you pick because it doesn't count for much," he said. "Everyone wants work experience, but with the school I went to, you don't get any experience. There was no focus on anything and definitely nothing to do with work experience."
Radek Lacina, marketing specialist for Grafton Recruitment, raises another problem with the education system, pointing to a mismatch between the skills of graduates and the requirements of the labor market.
"There are too many university students taking humanities degrees and very few enrolled in technically oriented courses or apprenticeships," he said. [As a prospective student], you have to think about the decision-making process very carefully. We've got too many lawyers, too many businessmen and too many marketing people. This can't go up; the market is saturated."
With more young people entering tertiary education, getting a degree - even in vocational subjects - doesn't guarantee a job anymore.
Čeněk Moravec recently completed his degree at the Czech Technical University in Prague, where he studied the economics of civil engineering.
Moravec says he would like a career in town planning, but despite having gained relevant work experience during his course, the graduate has still endured a fruitless three months since leaving university. His industry, which once blossomed, has been hit particularly hard by the recession.
"There has been a very serious decline in civil engineering over the past three years," Moravec said. "When I started at my university, everyone who passed their exams went straight into work. Employers came to the university and were literally queuing up outside for students to leave."
Lacina explained, "Before the crisis, young people, especially university graduates, were preferred by the market. But the situation has now changed. Companies are keeping their feet on the ground a bit; they're afraid, and they're not as flexible."
"It's about positive prospects for the future," he added. "If you believe you'll grow, you can afford to employ and deal with young, inexperienced people. But if you just want to increase the flexibility and effectiveness of your business in the short term, you usually look for experienced workers."
As a result, employers are demanding more and more from the people they hire. When 22-year-old Lenka Hrudková graduated from the private Anglo-American University in June 2012, she didn't just struggle to find work in her chosen field of business administration.
"I was applying to jobs such as a hotel receptionist because I was starting to be really desperate and my mom was complaining that I didn't have a job," she said. "So I was applying to this, and they would write back to me and say, 'We chose a better candidate.' They were giving me English tests, Italian tests and German tests. I don't know what else I was supposed to do."
Hrudková was eventually offered a short-term contract as a junior accountant at Johnson & Johnson, but not before she had gone through a rigorous interview process that sometimes involved up to 20 candidates in one session.
Meanwhile, the record-high unemployment rate has spurred trade unions into action. Pavel Janíčko of the umbrella organization ČMKOS brands the recent results "alarming." He says the government should prioritize growth rather than austerity.
"These cuts in the state budget undermine economic expansion and affect expenditures for employment policy, which are about 10 times lower in comparison with more advanced EU states," Janíčko said.
In response, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Ludmila Müllerová says she is engaged in regular talks with ČMKOS Chairman Jaroslav Zavadil, while Prime Minister Petr Nečas bowed to pressure last month and met Zavadil one-on-one to discuss ways of boosting jobs.
Among ČMKOS's proposals to curb youth unemployment are a wider-ranging role for labor offices, a more focused distribution of EU funds to active employment programs and greater support for so-called "Kurzarbeit," whereby shorter working hours are subsidized by the government in return for companies not laying people off.
However, Münich warns such a policy requires a change to the Labor Code, which would take time to implement. He also played down the merits of a tax system that rewards the hiring of young people, claiming it can be "ineffective" because "everybody would use it, even those who would find a job anyway."
"It's always difficult to implement quick, ad-hoc measures," Münich said. "If the government is not closely watching what's going on in the labor market or analyzing the efficiency of its tools, then of course when a crisis comes, you don't know what to do."
The economist says the government has no reliable data to indicate whether its current programs are effective, compounding the problems of labor offices that have already been overwhelmed by staff shortages and a failed IT system.
"They are too busy with separately registering people and paying them benefits," he said. "They have no time to provide real counseling or profile their clients. In fact, [when] the crisis came, unemployment went up, and they started cutting staff at the labor offices."
Vĕtrovský added, "The labor office doesn't help you very much; it's pretty terrible. You have to find the job yourself, because with them it's not really possible. Sometimes you're given a printout of some job offers, but they're usually out-of-date and not suitable for you."
For her part, Müllerová, who has also had to pick up the pieces of a ministry that became embroiled in a corruption scandal last year, has given her backing to the "Kurzarbeit" system and says more than 15 billion Kč will be dedicated to getting people back to work.
In addition, the 58-year-old plans to bring in 200 new clerks to labor offices around the country, although this still falls some way short of the 500 that Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek said were needed in view of the malfunctioning computers when he appeared on Czech Television March 3.
But even with the extra clerks, it could be a while yet until the situation improves. With the Czech economy so dependent on its export market, notably to Germany, analysts say there is unlikely to be any sign of a recovery before the end of the year.
In the meantime, all young people like Vĕtrovský and Moravec can do is keep trying and pray for the best.
"Part of me hopes there will be a moment where it will work and I'll find something," Vĕtrovský said, "But I also sometimes think, 'What if it doesn't and I'm stuck like this?' It feels like I'm not heading anywhere. It can be pretty frustrating."
- Monika Ticháčková contributed to this report.
Jonathan Crane can be reached at