Mark Levels on the issue of NEETs: Youth Not in Employment, Education and Training

Earlier this year, SBE-researcher Mark Levels (ROA and GSBE) won a research grant in the highly competitive Open Research Area grant scheme, organized by NWO, ANR, JSPS, DFG and ESRC, to conduct a large cross-national research program on youth Not in Employment, Education and Training (NEETs). We caught up with Mark to see how the programme is moving forward.

You’re conducting research in multiple countries about NEETs—young people who are not in the labour market or in school. How does this group differ from other unemployed people?
Unemployed people are arguably less problematic. Because people who are just unemployed but still wanting to get a job eventually probably will. At some point they may for example accept a job below their education level or in a different field. They’ll find something. But NEETs may be have completely given up and may be completely inactive. That’s a whole different story.

What makes this particular group more problematic?
So there’s two things: there are scarring effects you can see across your life if you are inactive very early on; it’s very hard to get back from early inactivity. So this is why it’s a problematic group in the long run. The second thing is that most of what we know works about getting people back on track is specifically based on the assumption that they will actually respond to incentives. Mostly money. For this specific young group of people, that is not necessarily the case. So how can we get these kids back on track?

How do you define a NEET, and how large a group is this?
It’s a very specific group. Or I should say we think it is—we really don’t know. Defining the group is one of the major issues. We are looking at 16-34 year olds, which is a very broad group, and we are going to look at specific ages within this group as well. You can imagine a person just out of school will have different reasons for being inactive than say people in their 30s who may have some labour market experience already. They are probably different. We don’t know. And one of the first things we need to figure out is whether that’s true.

In the EU you have about 14 million of these people. In terms of relative size, the size varies greatly between countries. In the Netherlands we have about 5.5 percent young NEETS, but in Ireland and some southern European countries rates go above 20 percent.

What are the central goals of your research?
The first is to figure out what kind of people end up in this group. Whether it is justified to talk about it as one homogenous group. And the second thing is to look at different policies in different countries, the different institutional settings, and see what works in preventing this.

For example, we want to look at how the educational system works in giving people the right skills and diploma so they can be helpful in the labour market. If you a very occupationally specific training, and the occupation that you want and are trained for is not available, that makes you probably very inflexible in finding another job. So what are the kinds of combinations of skills people need to be both skilled to be productive in a certain occupation, but at the same time also flexible enough to move to a different occupation if need be.

We also look at labour market institutions, the flexibility of the labour market, employment protection and so forth. There are all sorts of hypotheses that a very protective labour market is very, very bad for young people, because they are outsiders and have to get in. We know a little bit about how this works for unemployment but not specifically for NEETs.

How do you anticipate the educational systems mixed with cultural attitudes toward educational levels across different countries will influence your findings?
The cultural dimension is hard to get at. How do you quantify that? If you look at the education system in France, if you go to a vocational school you will gain skills but generally be considered less valuable than if you went to an academic track. If you look at Germany, as a contrast, it’s completely different. There is a hierarchy as well, but if you have a vocational diploma, it actually has great merit there. It’s a completely different way of looking at vocational education with very different consequences for young people.

What I can say about the Netherlands is, off the bat, we are probably doing something right, because we are the country with the lowest NEET population in the world. What causes that or why it works here, we don’t know. But we are going to find out.

How big a predictor is socio-economic status?
It’s a considerable factor, but NEET are not necessarily people from specific socio-economic backgrounds. Sociological research is now increasingly suggesting that old verities may no longer hold. The old insurances that one had against being inactive, being or becoming unemployed— having a good network or coming from a high social background—may no longer work. 

What is your research approach?
We came up with an integrated research programme, where we do similar analysis on similar data and we try to get an idea of what happens in these countries—in Japan, Germany, France, the Netherlands and England—and see what constitutes these groups in different countries, what characteristics they have, the predictors of NEET’s changing status over time, what role policy plays.

We are also using quasi-experiments to test policy initiatives in different countries. And then from that, eventually, we try to gain hypotheses about what works and try to see whether we can generalize these while looking at large international datasets where we could actually test them more broadly. That’s the strategy.

Are you also working directly with policy makers to share your findings?
We are also collaborating with policy makers, from the OECD, from the EC, and various governments. The theory was we would just bring people here to talk about to talk about the research and help us translate what we find to policies or to laws that actually help these young people. So that’s the idea. In practice, policy makers change jobs quite often. But we have a completely new board now!, In the end, it would be great if we our research could contribute to improving the effectiveness of policies and institutions that aim to reduce the number of NEETs.

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