European Social Fund Conference discusses how to get Europe back to work

Isabella De Luca

A European Social Fund (ESF) Conference took place this Tuesday and Wednesday, May 28 and 29, in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin, as part of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

The event, which looked at the ESF Contribution to Labour Market Activation, was opened by the Minister for Training and Skills, Ciarán Cannon.

Founded in 1957, the European Social Fund is the EU’s main financial instrument for investing in people.  €375 million of ESF funding has been allocated to Ireland between 2007 and 2013 through the Human Capital Investment Operating Programme.

The two main priorities of the programme are increasing activation of the labour force and providing citizens from disadvantaged groups the skills to improve their employment prospects.

‘With high level of unemployment in Ireland and across Europe it is pertinent for us as policy makers to consider how the European Social Fund can assist us in upskilling and educating our unemployed and our young people to assist them in attaining sustainable employment,’ said Minister Cannon in his remarks.

The conference proceeded with speeches about the links between labour market skills and labour market needs, and a presentation on the MOMENTUM Programme, which is designed to assist long-term unemployed jobseekers to gain in-demand skills and to access work in sectors of the economy where there are job opportunities.

A number of workshops then took place, with a strong focus on the importance of third-level education, the activation of youth at the highest risk of social inclusion and the need to tailor vocational training programmes to fit the skills needs of the future.

Europe in general has a very educated population, but people are not being trained in the areas where there is the most work, or equipped with the skills that employers are looking for.  Delegates agreed that there should be more of a focus on minor qualifications, regional programmes and appropriate work placement opportunities.  Partnership between academic institutions and employment sectors was seen to be essential to progress in these areas.  Early intervention was touted as the best method of preventing long-term unemployment, and better staffing and cooperation between state bodies was suggested to be the key to active inclusion of high-risk groups.

On Wednesday, these conclusions were discussed in greater detail.  Questions such as how ESF funding can contribute to these advancements and whether it would help achieve the EU2020 targets were addressed.

Cuts in funding at this time of greatest economic need were lamented but the overall tone was one of determination to equip people with the skills they will need for the jobs that will be available when economy recovery sets in.

The next round of European Social Fund programme funding will commence in 2014.  The policies and themes that were presented at the conference this week will be central to the considerations of EU Member States for their decision-making on ESF implementation in the coming seven years.

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