Britain provides a lesson in fighting unemployment through training schemes

It is commonly accepted that, in Greece, the professional training system is extremely weak. It remains disconnected from the real needs of the economy and business firms. Many chances to improve this state of affairs have been wasted and the huge sums provided through the EU’s Third Community Support Framework have had little impact on employment. Just tinkering with the system is not going to produce results. Great Britain’s spectacular progress in professional training and the fight against unemployment, as presented last week during an event organized by the British Embassy and the British Council, provides a helpful comparison and could serve as a useful focus on what needs to be done. By adopting a mixture of employment and training policies since 1997, the year the present Labor government gained power, Britain made the most of its high growth levels and brought its unemployment rate down to levels not seen since 1976, significantly reducing the need for unemployment benefits. In fact the number of dole recipients is the lowest in 30 years. Back in 1986, 1.3 million people received unemployment benefits for over a year. The number has dropped to just 140,000. The unemployment rate, at 4.7 percent of the work force, is as low as that of Japan, while the rate of employment is especially high (74.8 percent) and certainly higher than the average among EU and OECD members. According to Jane Kennedy, minister of state for work at the Department for Work and Pensions, this change is due to the following factors: «A regulatory framework that ensures flexibility and security and the adoption of a benefits disbursal system to individuals earning less than the minimum daily wage. A third factor is the focus on education and training, which contributed to a 15 percent reduction in the number of people with no skills whatsoever.» She remarks, however, that unemployment among minorities is higher than average, at about 7 percent. Unemployment is heavier among people living in publicly subsidized accommodation. It also disproportionately hurts people lacking skills, or holding skills that are considered obsolete by the labor market. It is remarkable that long-term unemployment (above 12 months) among the young has been virtually eradicated. The layoff rate is below that reached during the recession-plagued 1990s, while total long-term unemployment is back down to 1970s levels. Economic stability This is not to say that serious problems do not continue to afflict the British labor market. However, linking job training and entrepreneurship has taken advantage of the climate of macroeconomic stability and has acted as a major force driving the market’s expansion. The key was the quality of help channeled to the unemployed and certain other groups of people in order to acquire the skills desired by the job market. This was achieved through the cooperation of the state agencies concerned with employment and teaching skills. In July 2003, the British government launched its National Skills Strategy, an alliance of four ministries, the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress, the Small Business Council and the Skills Training Council. What is relevant to us is that the government actively sought to pinpoint the enterprises’ needs, by region. Regional skills cooperatives were set up. In 2003, 10,000 employers employed more than 60,000 low-skilled employees in training programs. Each month, 1,000 employers and 4,000 people join the regional training schemes. Business skills are now being taught in schools, from the age of 14 onward, and students can secure 15-day apprenticeships in a firm. Each student aged 14 to 16 must have some knowledge about the labor market through participation in a professional training scheme.