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Measuring the Youth Guarantee:

Just what is a “good quality” internship?

It has already been two years since the EU launched its Youth Guarantee, promising every young person who is jobless for more than 4 months a “good quality” offer of work, education, training or a traineeship (in this piece traineeship and internship are interchangeable). This was a bold proposal in an area where the European Institutions have limited competence – not a job creation scheme, as critics cried, but a way to help Europe’s youth through this crisis and avoid a lost generation. To campaigners for quality internships, the inclusion of traineeships in the Youth Guarantee seemed like a positive step towards acknowledgement of internships as an increasingly necessary phase of professional development – a position worthy of regulation. This was followed in March 2014 by an ambitious (although non-binding) Council recommendation on a Quality Framework for Traineeships, which called for Member States to assure trainees clear supervision, concrete learning objectives, written contracts and fair terms and conditions. The signs were all there for a Europe-wide discussion of policy measures to ensure that interns were fairly treated, and learning the workplace skills for a successful education-work transition.

Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly in these years of European paralysis, progress has been slow and disappointing. In March 2015 the European Court of Auditors published a highly critical report on the implementation of the Youth Guarantee. They highlighted the lack of clear criteria to assess whether traineeships represented a “good quality” offer. Far too many young Europeans already do one or more internships, often for little or no pay, often lacking meaningful learning content, and then find themselves unable to get a job at the end. The Youth Guarantee criteria will only apply to offers made as part of an intervention with eligible young people (those out of work or training for over 4 months), and will thus make up a small proportion of the internships in Europe. Yet surely it is important that these offers do not normalise an exploitative and damaging status quo? Indeed, high standards for Youth Guarantee traineeships could be a new ‘gold standard’ in internship quality, coupled with more general implementation of the Council recommendation across the internship sector.

This is why the Brussels Interns NGO worked with a coalition of MEPs to submit a Parliamentary Question to Commissioner Thyssen. We asked how the Commission was collecting data from Member States on the implementation of the recommendation, and what criteria they would apply to Youth Guarantee internships to assess if they were of “good quality”. In their response, the Commission promised a report on the recommendation next year. They also acknowledged the need for internships to add meaningful learning opportunities to the labour market, not replace existing jobs. However, on the matter of “good quality” traineeships, their answer was more surprising. They stated that “an offer is of good quality if the person who benefits from it achieves sustainable labour market attachment.”

This is a radical new definition of a high quality internship, moving away from the ‘quality attributes’ model supported by us and encoded in the Council recommendation and the European Youth Forum’s Quality Charter on Internships and Apprenticeships. Instead of describing how a quality internship would look, the Commission is proposing that a quality internship is one that gives a young person durable employment prospects. This is a vague concept, but surely the only meaningful way to measure it is to ask whether, a certain number of months after beginning the internship, the intern is now in a stable job. This is a very demanding and ambitious measure of quality – but is it really a victory for young people?

No one disagrees with the sentiment: that internships should be a part of a young person’s education-work transition, not a permanent destination. Indeed, if the Commission follows this route then we could have some fascinating long-term data to track the impact of internships on a young person’s career. However, this ex post criterion will make assessment of an internship’s quality in the here-and-now impossible. How on Earth are we to know today if an internship will have got the intern a job in a year’s time? Policy cannot be made in the future perfect tense.

Internships offered within the Youth Guarantee will have to be approved by employment services as meeting the “good quality” criterion now: not 18 months later when the young person has either found or not found stable employment. At our event in the European Parliament in February, MEPs and partners from business and civil society agreed that a quality internship is one where the intern is treated fairly and learns valuable workplace skills. There needs to be a clear set of present tense criteria that employment agencies can apply: these should be the criteria found in the Council recommendation. This is not perfect (it is silent, for example, on remuneration) but it was at least created with a variety of stakeholders that have real expertise in the area.

Talk of 12 and 18-month reviews is all very nice, but we need a Youth Guarantee that works with the movement for quality internships by incorporating and building on the recommendation. Europe’s jobseekers do not need an unmeasurable and thus unenforceable measure of “good quality”. This could open the door to young people being pushed by state agencies to take up meaningless traineeships where they learn nothing, earn nothing and undercut existing workers.

By Bryn Watkins, Partnerships Collaborator (Brussels Interns NGO)