Tackling youth unemployment in southern Spain

Graffiti about youth unemployment in Spain
Graffiti about youth unemployment in Spain (©Flickr/Santiago López Pastor)

Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union: 22%. In the southern province of Andalucía, the figure is even higher – one in three is out of work. Youth unemployment is even more alarming: 50% of young people in the region are unemployed. So how are people coping and what are they doing about the problem?

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Presenter: Ginger da Silva

Broadcast: June 2, 1997

The programme was awarded a silver medal by Radio y Televisión de Andalucía (RTVA) in 1998.


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service presents: A Good Life, with Ginger da Silva.

Simply depressive. I mean when you find yourself being 20-something, 30, and you look back and say “OK, I have a college degree. Maybe I have a boyfriend or a girlfriend and I’m living with my parents. I have never worked. And yeah, you basically feel kind of useless.

Today on A Good Life, we have a special program focusing on one of the most crucial problems facing the countries of Western Europe: youth unemployment. Finding and keeping a good job is what we are trained for, what we expect to be the centerpiece of a Good Life. Technology and the global economy may be making companies and even countries, but they’re eliminating jobs. As European politicians prepare for the Amsterdam summit June 16th and 17th, thousands of unemployed people are preparing to march on the Dutch capital to draw attention to their plight. There’s a lot of rhetoric about job creation, but effective plans are few. Nowhere in Europe is this problem felt more acutely than in Spain, which has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union: 22%. In the southern province of Andalucía, the figure is even higher. One in three is out of work. Youth unemployment is even more alarming: 50% of young people in the region are unemployed. Eric Beauchemin traveled to Andalucía to find out how people are coping with the problem and what they are doing about it.

I have already talked to people, then I have gone to the employment office too. Of course nobody called. And then I went to the temporary employment offices – it’s a kind of boom here in Spain now. It could be faster to find a job that way. And then I’m in the middle of the process of going door by door, just knocking, and saying “Hi, I’m Carlos. I can do this, I can do that. Please give me a call if you need me”.

Carlos Quintero is in his mid-30s. In most countries, he’d no longer be considered a youth, but because of the extremely high jobless rate in Spain, sociologists and politicians have extended the word to include men and women in their mid or even late 30s. Carlos got a university degree in Spain, and then went to the United States where he obtained a Master’s Degree in journalism and communications. After teaching at a university in Mexico for several years, he returned to Spain. He knew that it wouldn’t be easy to find a job, but he hadn’t expected it to be this difficult. Most of his friends and acquaintances are unemployed too.

Basically, most of the people is still living with their parents, being 20-something, 30, 30-something. I mean they can survive. They’re not totally depressed or negative because they are living with their parents, and they don’t have problems of surviving, but regarding getting an employment, especially those people who never got their first job, things are really tough. Especially, you know, people again with college degrees in this kind of humanistic fields. People really don’t see where they can go, you know. They just wait to follow these steps I told you. But they don’t have expectations. But I mean that’s horrible if you’re in your late 20s or early 30s and you’re still living with your parents. There aren’t very many possibilities or almost no possibilities at all to find a job. Psychologically it must be quite difficult. Yeah, actually, yeah, it’s simply depressive. I mean when you find yourself being 20-something, 30, and you look back and say “OK, I have a college degree. Maybe I have a boyfriend or a girlfriend and I’m living with my parents. I have never worked. And yeah, you basically feel kind of useless. I mean you don’t produce. You’re just staying with your parents, you know, spending money, and not doing basically anything. It’s really psychologically, it’s really tough. I mean I have friends who are really depressed because they don’t see how they can get out of their problem.

The problem has become so serious, says Fernando Toscano, the director of the Ministry of Labor and Industry for the regional government of Andalucía, that it’s now the government’s top priority.

We have a high unemployment rate in this region: about 32%. For young people, the jobless rate is 50%. It should come as no surprise then that the regional government’s chief priority is to create new jobs, particularly for young people. The strange thing is that Andalucía has the most highly educated generation of young people it has ever had, and yet we have the highest youth unemployment rate we’ve ever had in our history.

In Spain, employment policy is the responsibility of regional governments rather than the central administration in Madrid. Since achieving home rule in the early 1980’s, the authorities in Andalucía have established several ministries and departments to combat unemployment. Over the past few years, they’ve devised a number of innovative programs and schemes to create jobs, particularly for young people. One of the most successful programs is known as the Escuela de Empresas. It literally means “school for businesses”, but as Fernando Toscano explains, it’s actually an integrated employment scheme.

We provide young entrepreneurs with a factory or a work place free of charge. The idea is that a group of young people gets together and establishes a cooperative society or a limited liability company. We expect them to have formal training in their profession. In other words, if they want to set up a carpentry business, they must already know how to make chairs. What most of them lack are management and business administration skills. So as part of the scheme, we provide the young entrepreneurs with a qualified technical director who advises them on how to run their company. The technical director is involved from the very beginning: he or she examines their business plan and decides whether it’s viable or not. If it is, the technical director gives the OK, and we provide them with a workshop or a factory free for a period of three years. During this period, the young entrepreneurs receive on the job training in management, business administration, marketing, and so on.

One of the young entrepreneurs who has taken advantage of the scheme is Enrique Rivas. 3 years ago, he and four associates set up the Maxi cooperative. The company – which cuts and polishes marble – is located on an industrial site in the village of La Rinconada, about half an hour’s drive from the Andalucian capital, Seville.

We started off by presenting an application to the city council. It gave the green light and we started the company just under 3 years ago. We wouldn’t have been able to set up this company without the assistance of the regional and local governments. They provided us with this workshop. They helped us purchase the equipment, and they’re also paying part of the salaries.

We can’t complain, the company is up and running. But even with the assistance we’ve received, it’s been difficult. We’ve really had to work hard to make this a success. Our three-year lease to use these premises will soon expire. We’ve already made arrangements to get a new workshop. But we still have to move all our equipment to the new site, and it’s going to be a lot of work.

There are six other companies operating on the industrial site in La Rinconada. One of them is involved in plumbing and electrical installations. Another manufactures electrical circuits. There’s also a company specialized in computerized mapping systems. The most successful of the 7 projects is Maserauto, an automobile repair shop. Rafael Maser is the company’s president. He’s just turned 30. 3 years ago, he started up Maserauto, together with 4 associates.

We got the idea because we couldn’t find steady work. We were just going from one place to another, working for short periods, without any job security. The employment scheme gave me the idea of starting up my own business. We received some financial assistance from the regional and local governments, but we also had to invest our own money and get a loan from the bank. As with all new companies, it was pretty hard in the beginning. Not enough money was coming in, so we had to learn about advertising and marketing.

We recently received a national award for being the best auto repair shop in Spain. We see it as recognition for what we’ve been doing in terms of creating a name for ourselves and providing high-quality service. Our lease here will be up soon, so we’re now in the process of setting up a new repair shop.

We bought not one but two garages because business is so good. We’re also planning to offer new services, such as a waiting room for customers who come in just to get an oil change. They can have a cup of coffee and read the paper while they wait. We also offer a courtesy car which customers can use free-of-charge while we repair their vehicle. Service is the name of the game today. There are some people who chose a garage because of the price, but if you’re able to combine low prices and service, you’re sure to get business.

The local authorities in La Rinconada are extremely pleased with the results obtained by the young entrepreneurs over the past three years. Antonio Pérez Fernández is the deputy mayor of La Rinconada. He’s also responsible for the town’s housing and economic policies.

Of the seven projects, at least five of them will definitely continue. You have to realize that there was almost no entrepreneurial spirit in this area. So the scheme has not only created new jobs, it’s also generated new ideas. The facilities we’ve created will enable other young entrepreneurs to start up their own company. So we feel it’s been cost-effective from every point of view.

When the three year period is up, the young entrepreneurs have to move out of the facilities provided by the local and regional authorities. They can apply for financial assistance from another employment scheme to acquire new premises for their business. Antonio Pérez and the authorities in La Rinconada are now in the process of selecting a new group of young entrepreneurs to move into the industrial site for the next three year period.

We organized a competition to chose the new businesses. Young people had to submit their ideas and business plans. We used a number of criteria to make the selection. The more jobs a company would create, the greater the number of points we awarded it. Companies which use local resources or new technologies get a higher priority as do companies which are export-oriented. The response though was rather disappointing. We have seven workshops here and we received 8 applications, only 4 of which are viable. So we’re going to have to organize another competition.

Andalucía’s regional government is pleased with the results achieved so far in its Escuela scheme. There are 29 of these employment centers throughout Andalucía, mainly in rural areas, and within the next few months, another 7 centers will be opened. By the time the scheme is fully up and running, the Andalucían authorities expect that 13-hundred new jobs will be created every three years and will generate nearly 30 million dollars in private investment. As far as Fernando Toscano of the Andalucían regional government is concerned, the Escuela scheme has been a success.

I would describe the project as a success. That may not mean very much because we’re the ones who came up with this idea. The reason I say it’s a success is that it’s also received the backing of the European Commission, and several European countries – including Greece, Portugal, Belgium and Sweden – are copying our scheme and adapting it to their needs. Morocco too is implementing the scheme. The program is extremely flexible: it’s even been adopted by the government in El Salvador to try to reintegrate the former rebel soldiers in the country’s labor market. Of course, there’ve been failures, but over all, I would say the program is good and it’s been very successful.

Another youth employment scheme which uses some of the same elements as the Escuela project is run by SECOT, which stands for Spanish Seniors for Technical Cooperation. SECOT is designed to get business professionals and technical experts, who’ve reached retirement age but who are not yet ready to stop working entirely, involved in useful projects. Over 500 Spanish senior citizens do volunteer work for SECOT. They use their management and technical expertise to assist and guide businesses throughout the developing world. In 1995, SECOT signed an agreement with Spain’s Youth Institute to provide technical, financial and legal assistance to young people who want to start up a company. In some cases, a SECOT volunteer may only spend about 10 to 12 hours advising young entrepreneurs. In other cases, SECOT seniors spend up to 100 hours providing assistance and guidance to young businessmen. Despite the fact that the SECOT members are as old as the young entrepreneurs’ parents or even grandparents, Luis Azebal, SECOT’s secretary general, says the young businessmen and women welcome the advice.

Our seniors’ strong point is that they’re willing to spend a lot of time with these young people. They aren’t there counting the minutes. It’s a positive type of paternalism and young people welcome it. We make them realize that starting up their own business is a serious matter and that they haven’t thought it through carefully enough. In other cases, we advise young entrepreneurs to alter their project to make it more realistic. The important thing is that we take the time to listen to young people and we take them seriously. As I said, most young entrepreneurs are satisfied with the assistance we provide, and some of them even consult us again later.

While many young people in Andalucía lack managerial skills, there are young entrepreneurs in the province who have ideas and don’t require extensive supervision. Another department in the Andalucían regional government has created a scheme to help them start up their own company. It’s called the Youth Business Program. There’s a very good reason for putting such a heavy emphasis on the creation of new companies, says Antonio Torro, the director general of the Professional Training and Employment Program of the Andalucían government.

There’s a small managerial and production base in Andalucía. It’s in our interests to encourage the many well-qualified young people we have here to start up their own businesses. We’re meeting with Andalucían universities and professional schools to convince them to include a course to stimulate young people to create their own businesses and learn basic managerial skills. Obviously, we’re also providing young people with financial assistance so that they can start their own business.

What we have is a project to prepare our children for the future. And we try to combine fun with education and with new technologies. It’s a mixture that makes children enjoy quite a lot when they come to our classes and to learn quite a lot because they are in a exciting atmosphere and they feel very confident.

A year and a half ago, Antonia, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend – who are in their late 20s and early 30s – started up the first branch in Spain of Future Kids, an American-based company designed to familiarize children with computers.

We had a little bit of money saved but we had to go to the government here in Andalucía and we told them that we were very young. We were very enthusiastic but we needed help. And they really did it: they helped us. We had too to give them a very very well done project and to explain everything and to give them a lot of data and they studied it. And when they saw that this was going to be successful, they bet on us – do you say that? – they bet on us and they said, “OK, we are going to help you”, and, well, they really helped us. I think it would have been impossible if we hadn’t had the help of the government in Andalucía.

We started a bit afraid because, you know, Andalucía is not a very rich region and even people are very traditional. They don’t like those ideas that are really innovative. They are very attached to customs, to traditions. So this was very American and so we said, “well, let’s see how it’s going on”.

…and it’s been going very well. Future Kids is located in a mall in the center of Granada, about a 2-and-a-half hour drive from Seville. They have a dozen computers, with some of the latest software packages and computer games. The children who enroll at Future Kids are 3 to 14 years old, and they’re taught in small groups of between 3 to 6 students. The classes are designed to familiarize children with computers and to prepare them for a world in which computers will play an ever greater role. I asked one of the children, 8-year-old Francisco, if he liked the class.

Yes, he says, he likes the class and the computer. He likes everything in fact: the colors, the sounds. It’s only his first day here, says Francisco, but he plans to keep coming.

You aren’t breaking even yet but you already have plans to expand. Can you tell me about those plans? We are trying to bring our project to all schools in Granada, even in the whole district, not only in the capital. And we would like that our children would be able to learn how to work with computers as another subject like they have mathematics or language. They need computers because they are going to use them now and in the future, and it’s going to be very important for them. So we try to get in touch with all the directors and all the teachers in the different schools to explain to them about our project and about what we can bring to their children. And if we have a lot of children here in our learning center,  maybe we will build another one, and another one, and so on.

30-year-old Sara Navarro is another entrepreneur in Granada who’s taking advantage of the regional government’s Youth Business Program. Last year, with financial backing from the program, she started up a cultural center to provide English lessons and art classes to children between the ages of 4 and 12 during the afternoon and evenings, when the children’s parents are at work or busy doing other things.

It had a lot to do with what I was familiar with. So I wanted it to be related to art because I studied art in school and in the university. And then I wanted to teach art, but the situation for public schools and high schools, all that area is really difficult. And I wanted freedom in a way and work and do it my way, too. So I had to start thinking about what would people need that I could offer related to what I was prepared for. So it’s new and maybe it will work. People need things like this. People need places to take their kids, places that offer good quality, good service.

The concept is still fairly new in Granada, and it hasn’t been easy. They’re are 25 children enrolled in the school at the moment, and Sara Navarro estimates that she needs twice as many to break even. She’s relying primarily on word of mouth to publicize her cultural center, but is hopeful that it will soon get out of the red.

While Andalucía’s regional government has been investing heavily in helping young people set up their own businesses, it’s also devised other policies to get more young people on the job market. The regional authorities have discovered that companies are willing to hire young, inexperienced workers for limited periods, but they generally aren’t willing to turn those contracts into permanent jobs. So to encourage employers, the regional government pays part of the young employees’ salaries as well as the companies’ social security contributions for three years on condition that they hire the young employees on a permanent basis. The regional government, says Antonio Torro, also has another program aimed specifically at teenagers.

It’s based on the EU’s Youth Start program. We only have six of these projects in Andalucía but they are all quite big. The program enables us to try out new policies. We’ve focused on people under the age of 20 who have trouble on the job market because they don’t have a degree or because they live in rural areas. What we try to do is meet these young people on the street, try to encourage them to look for work, to get training. We tell them about looking for work, about what’s it like to be employed. We take them to visit companies, we go along with them for job interviews, and we even offer small incentives to employers who hire these young people. We then have what we call tutors in the company who regularly talk to the employer to see if everything is going well.

The question that begs asking, of course, is whether all these programs and schemes are actually improving the youth unemployment situation in Andalucía. It’s a fact that more and more young people in the region are getting jobs: the problem is that more and more young people are entering the job market because of the baby boom in Spain in the 60s and 70s. So while more young people are employed than a decade ago, there are still over 100-thousand young people in Andalucía looking for work. Nevertheless, Antonio Torro believes that the government-sponsored plans are worthwhile.

We’ve had success in the sense that young people are entering the job market well-prepared. The problem is keeping young people on the job market. You just have to look at the employment statistics in Andalucía. It’s very clear. Over the past few years, we’ve succeeded in cutting unemployment figures for all age groups, except the young. We’re making young people more attractive for employers but we haven’t managed to make sure that they keep their jobs.

But should the government be so heavily involved in trying to create jobs for the young? Shouldn’t it leave this up to market forces? Fernando Toscano.

Market forces should decide, but the market is not making the right decisions. The macroeconomic indicators in Spain are all positive, even in Andalucía. The economy is growing, and yet the job market isn’t. Up until recently, economic growth meant more jobs. That’s not the case here. We can’t simply introduce new measures to create economic growth and hope that this will lead to new jobs. It doesn’t work here. We have to introduce job creation measures.

But the Andalucían government realizes that it will take more than job creation schemes and EU initiatives to cut the high unemployment rates among young people. They’re talking now of the need for macroeconomic and fiscal policies from Madrid or even the European Union in Brussels, but press Andalucian officials for specifics, and they suddenly become very vague. They too are aware that no one has come up with quick solutions to the problem of youth joblessness. Sociologists, for their part, are becoming increasingly worried about the effects of the sustained high unemployment levels among young people in Andalucía and the rest of Spain. Manuel Martín Serrano carries out a national study every 4 years on the state of Spanish young people. He says that unemployment levels are creating serious social problems because young people tend to stay with their parents till they find a good, well-paying job.

We’re creating a huge burden for families. Financially, but also in emotional terms. Many young people depend on parents who are retired, who have to live on pensions and that’s not good. Traditionally, the family has been a place of refuge. The family takes care of its young, its old, its handicapped. The Spanish family has always demonstrated great solidarity. But you can’t stay with your parents forever. It isn’t a permanent solution. It’s not good for young people either because they have their needs like any adult. They don’t have privacy and they can’t be independent. But to blame young people for this, to say they’re responsible for this situation, is not only unfair, it’s also untrue.

Manuel Martín Serrano, like many other sociologists, fears that high youth unemployment is here to stay, and this is going to have profound consequences for society, in particular the young.

In Spain, perhaps like in the rest of the European Union, we are going to have to ask ourselves what it means to be young. Youth used to be a transitional period between childhood and maturity. Youth started at 15-years-old or so and by 21, young people were considered mature. It was a short period in life. But now this transitional phase actually lasts longer than childhood. Nowadays in Spain young people don’t reach maturity until they’re 30 or 35. We don’t even have a word for this phase, but it’s creating a lot of problems, beginning with young people themselves. Young people need to develop their own identities. But they see that society doesn’t consider them adults. When you ask young people to define themselves, many of them can’t.

Sociologist Manuel Martín Serrano bringing an end to this special edition of A Good Life on youth unemployment in Spain. This week’s program was prepared and produced by Eric Beauchemin with technical assistance by Arnold Peterse. I’m Ginger da Silva, and I’ll be back with A Good Life next week. Hope you will be too. Till then, stay well.