Tackling youth unemployment and the NEETs challenge: The case of Bulgaria.

Over the last few years, there has been a decrease of youth unemployment in Bulgaria. For instance, according to Eurostat, youth unemployment in Bulgaria was 8.6% in January 2023, down from 13.6% in January 2022 and 8.8% in December 2022.Against this backdrop, the issue of NEETs continues to be a challenge and concern. According to an OECD report, NEET rates in Bulgaria in 2020 were among the highest in the EU at 18% against a European average of 14%. Reaching and activating NEETs on the job market is one of the priorities of the National Employment Agency of Bulgaria (and its labour offices), the institution which is one of the main stakeholders implementing various youth employment initiatives. In its estimation, a number of cultural, social and economic factors account for the high NEET rates among Bulgarian youth, such as the late age at which young people leave their parents’ households, the generally low degree of labour force mobility, and the weak social and economic development of some regions in the country. These traits have been persistent over time, and are a reason for the continously high number of NEETs in Bulgaria (compared to the average for the EU). Eurostat data on thecomposition of NEETs in Bulgaria reveal that a large proportion of NEETs are members of vulnerable or socially disadvantaged groups, including women, ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities. In 2021, the rate of female NEETs was 20.9% and that of male NEETs – 14.5%.

In Bulgaria the key tools used by the government to tackle the problem of unemployment, including among young people, have been hiring subsidies, on the one hand, and education and training, on the other. Most interventions providing employment subsidies aim at securing full-time employment for a period of 3 to 6 months. A notable exception are subsidies to employers hiring long-term unemployed persons – these are provided for a period of up to 12 months. There have been only a few initiatives providing subsidies for part-time employment. In regard to work experience placements, these are secured through a number of initiatives. In most cases, subsidies are used in order to encourage employers to create opportunities for internships and apprenticeships.

There are a number of specific initiatives designed by policymakers to provide opportunities and increase employability, as well as to activate and help young people find suitable jobs. Some of these programmes are general, others are tailored to the needs of specific groups of young people. Two types of interventions stem from the overall policy aimed to lower unemployment among NEETs: one that specifically targets young people, and the other – targeting various groups of unemployed people/generally unemployed, but including youth up to 29 years of age. Notable employment initiatives include, among others, the Career Start Programme, the Youth Employment Programme in the Field of Culture, the New Opportunities for Youth Employment Project, the National Employment and Training Programme for People with Permanent Disabilities, the National Programme ‘Activation of Inactive Persons’, Training and Employment Programme for Long-term Unemployed Persons.

Institutional and donor evaluations of such initiatives are generally present even though as a whole there is no consistency in the extent to which they can count as evaluations making solid qualitative conclusions based on various types of data. There is one key trend in such evaluations – the extent to which evaluations have a certain depth depending on the donor. One major observation is that there is a connection between the quality (and comprehensiveness) of an evaluation effort and the source of funding. Analyses by the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) suggest that initiatives funded directly through the state budget are marked by evaluations which provide more limited conclusions regarding the qualities and effectiveness of the respective initiatives. In contrast, interventions funded by the European Social Fund along the lines of the Operational Programme Human Resources Development (OP HRD) are marked by greater depth in the respective programme/initiative assessments. CSD also encountered some evaluations of initiatives funded under the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Commission, but these evaluations were inconsistent, relatively rare and at times of questionable objectivity (given that some of them were evaluated by the implementing consortium). In the case of these evaluations, their rarity could be perceived as a critical risk for the respective project’s sustainability, transparency, and funding mobilisation.

Within the framework of the Lost Millennials project, the Center for the Study of Democracy recently evaluated one notable youth employment initiative in Bulgaria – the Career Start Programme – which ranks high within the cluster of similar initiatives. The Career Start Programme is an annual initiative that has been fully operational since its launch in 2003 and is designed to tackle issues of youth unemployment. The initiative addresses the difficulties young university graduates (some of them being technically NEETs) face to find jobs that are in line with their knowledge and skills due to the lack of work experience. The target group of the Career Start Programme are young people up to 29 years of age, university graduates with no work experience, who are registered at labour offices (under the umbrealla of the National Employment Agency). The young people under the programme are given the opportunity to be employed and gain professional experience in the Bulgarian public administration (national, regional, local levels) for the period of twelve months.  The number of applicants within this initiative has been declining. Three major reasons can be identified for the diminishing interest in the programme: 1) low monthly pay; 2) prolonged application and selection procedure; and 3) a general lack of information campaigns or other promotional activities to popularize and make the programme more visible. Policy recommendations for streamlining the program can address these challenges.

By Alexander Politov and Lilia Yakova
Center for the Study of Democracy
Lost Millennials project


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