I am struck by the frequency with which the media are uncritically giving space to employers groups complaining about a supposed lack of skills. In Germany the idea does not seem completely absurd. Unemployment is at 5.5%, but there is considerable regional variation. Moreover, the German population is set to decline in the coming years.
At European level it seems little short of amazing at a time when European unemployment is at record levels. (Even in Germany there is substantial untapped labour resources in the form of involuntary part-time work and low female employment.) A recent example was the Financial Times, sounding the “alarm over skills shortage in Europe”. The FT journalist gives space to a series of European captains of industry to complain about
a growing skills shortage on the continent that threatens their competitiveness and leaves manufacturing companies scrambling to find enough engineers.
One’s heart truly bleeds. May I suggest, as a minimum, four simple questions that a decent journalist should have put to his interview partners.
The first is surely rather obvious. If, as reported in the article, manufacturing output is more than 10% down from its peak and the sector has shed almost a tenth of its workers, and evidence is cited that small manufacturers are going to the wall for lack of access to finance, just how plausible is the whole idea of imminent skill shortages in Europe at all.
Second, how does the threat to “move more research and development facilities to countries with a greater supply of engineers” if European governments fail to invest in education and lowering youth unemployment square with corporations’ systematic attempts to minimize their tax burden by shifting profits to tax havens and negotiating off-the-record tax holidays, playing off one government against another while resisting EU tax harmonisation.
Third, what about corporate investment in human capital? A German industrialist might have been asked whether some of the more than EUR25 billion that the 30 Dax companies are reportedly distributing to shareholders this year should have been invested in training and apprenticeship programmes; a Spaniard whether the professed concern for developing human capital can be taken seriously given that young people are virtually only ever offered successive short-run employment contracts and no attempt is made to keep them on in a downturn.
Fourth, rather than shedding crocodile tears about youth unemployment, what are business lobby groups, otherwise so active in defending their special interests, doing to end and reverse the destructive austerity policies in Europe that risk lasting damage to the manufacturing base of the continent and are threatening a lost generation of young workers whose skills and motivation are eroding as their prospects of employment in stable, high-quality jobs recede ever further?
Rather than hob-nobbing with the movers and shakers of industry and finance, correspondents writing on such issues are heartily recommended to have lunch with some of Europe’s unemployed youngsters before foraying into the debate on skills shortages in Europe. They shouldn’t be too hard to find: there are 5.7 million of them. Unlike with the captains of industry, the journalist will have to pick up the bill, though.