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European Decline: Is A University Degree Still Worth It?

Europe’s job seekers can expect tough years ahead. Cedefop, an EU agency, predicts slow employment growth will continue to come down disproportionately hard on the educated youth. Some are even asking if a university degree is still worth the time and mon

Students demonstrating last October in Florence (Collettivo Politico Scienze Politiche)
Students demonstrating last October in Florence (Collettivo Politico Scienze Politiche)
Florian Eder

BERLIN -- The euro crisis' impact on the job market will extend for at least the next decade, with only eight million new jobs expected to be created in the European Union between now and 2020. These are the central findings of a new report by the European Center for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop), an E.U. agency headquartered in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Cedefop director Christian Lettmayr says eight million new jobs over a 10-year period is "very few," and warns that development could slow down even further. The job stagnation, which will be concentrated in southern Europe where millions of young people are without jobs, challenges a long-accepted assumptions about the benefits of pursuing a higher education.

Cedefop estimates that on average, college grads and skilled workers in the European Union have an easier time finding work than their less qualified counterparts. However, in 2020, only 37% of available jobs will require higher qualifications. "And the problem is that in countries with very high unemployment like Greece, Italy, and Spain, that figure would not apply," says Lettmayr. "In those countries, the differences are disappearing."

The Cedefop head sees an imbalance in E.U. countries between supply and demand as regards those with high levels of skill or education. "The highly qualified are pushing people out of jobs that they are over-qualified for."

There are very few winners in the situation – with the possible short-term exception of the employer who is getting more for less. Lettmayr fears that more and more people are reaching the conclusion that, over the space of a working life, there will be too little return to warrant the investment in education.

Lettmayr, however, warns against drawing hasty conclusions from this exceptional, crisis-induced situation and thus risk degrading entire regions to a second-class job market status. "Levels of education and qualifications have to be increased in the economically weak countries, and not – driven by austerity measures – made even worse," he says.

The present over-qualified generation should find encouragement, says Lettmayr, by not focusing solely on their own country but instead viewing all of Europe as one large job market. "A significant number of people in Greece who are presently training to be doctors, or engineers, or computer scientists, will find jobs in northern Europe." That goes for skilled workers too, albeit to a lesser extent, Lettmayr adds. The Austrian-born Cedefop director admits, nevertheless, that "Europeans willing to work in other countries are still relatively few and far between."

Problems for the production line

Unwillingness to relocate is not the only problem for Europe's job market. Another stumbling block is the fact that Europeans don't choose the subject they want to study based on demand in the jobs available in that sector, according to Cedefop. The average European, in other words, trains to be a hairdresser, a sales person, historian or expert in Romance languages with the knowledge (or perhaps in happy ignorance of the fact) that there aren't a lot of outlets out there for whatever his or her chosen field is.

"There's a disconnect between supply and demand," says Lettmayr. "Too few young people are studying engineering of various kinds, math, and natural sciences. That's a risk for economic development and for Europe's competitiveness."

In the first two years after the crisis exploded in 2008, 5.5 million jobs were lost in Europe. Not only is new job creation not going to redress that situation, but according to the Cedefop study, there will be a change too in how those jobs are distributed, with most new posts coming at the very top and very bottom of the job market spectrum.

The demand for general workers and support personnel is growing all over Europe – less in construction or car manufacturing than in health care: aging societies are beginning to impact the job market. Jobs requiring middling levels of education or skills are the ones losing out.

The E.U. agency sees the demise of the production line: "The ones really losing out in Europe are those with jobs based in routine. There is less and less call for production line workers," says Lettmayr.

The number of new jobs in machinery and assembly of all kinds will diminish, according to Cedefop. That also goes for office work. Secretarial and clerking jobs should decrease by a good 1.5 million in Europe by 2020 – only outdone by the decrease in manual labor jobs expected to go down by some 2 million.

Read the original article in German

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