Unpaid Traineeships: Empowering Europe’s Youth for a Fair Bridge to Employment

18 October 2023 /

6 min

A diverse range of traineeships exists across the European Union, varying in quality.

Traineeships play a crucial role as a gateway for young individuals entering the job market. However, there are concerns about their quality. Last June, the European Parliament approved a report calling for a directive for improved working conditions for traineeships to offer young individuals valuable experience and fair compensation.

In June of this year, the European Parliament approved a report that urged the Commission to put forward a directive regarding high-quality traineeships. This report also called for an update to the current Quality Framework for Traineeships and stressed the need for stricter, legally binding regulations to be applied across European Union member states.

According to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), the proposed directive should establish a baseline for quality standards. This would involve making it mandatory for traineeships in the “open market”, which refers to post-graduate traineeships not linked to formal education, to offer fair compensation. The report emphasises that traineeships must at the very least cover essential living expenses such as food, housing and transportation. The compensations should be adjusted according to the varying costs of living in each member state.

Additionally, the directive proposed by the MEPs should outline guidelines regarding the duration of traineeships and ensure that trainees have access to social benefits like health insurance, unemployment support, and pension contributions. The parliamentary report calls for the inclusion of mentorship and learning objectives for all trainees in order to clearly distinguish traineeships from entry-level jobs. 

Despite widespread support and a large majority voting in favour of the report, there were disagreements, mostly from right-leaning MEPs. The centre-right European People’s Party expressed its support for quality traineeships during the debate but attempted – unsuccessfully – to amend the report, proposing a shift from demanding a legally binding directive by the Commission to a non-binding recommendation.

Navigating the traineeship terrain in Europe

The topic is highly relevant. According to a Eurobarometer survey conducted this year, 78% of young people participated in at least one traineeship. For 19% of them, a traineeship constituted the first work experience they ever gained.

Traineeships provide valuable entry points for young individuals embarking on their careers. They have become the principal pathway for young people transitioning from education into professional life, offering them a chance to gain essential work experience early in their careers. Successful traineeships enhance students’ prospects of securing job offers, whether within the workplace where they were trained or elsewhere.

Nonetheless, there are valid concerns regarding the efficacy and quality of certain traineeships. Some of them lack a strong focus on learning and are used as replacements for regular employees, thereby reducing the costs of employment. In some cases, studies revealed that trainees experience short-term negative impacts on their earnings compared to peers who directly enter employment.

A diverse range of traineeships exists across the European Union, varying in quality. These disparities arise from specific cultural traditions, regulations within national education systems and labour markets, as well as the legal status and recent policy initiatives related to traineeships.

The legal frameworks governing traineeships exhibit substantial variation not only between member states but even within single member states. This is due to the fact that the conditions for traineeships are often subject to legislation within different domains, including education, training, social policy, and labour laws. The quality of traineeships continues to be uneven across the EU.

Unequal opportunities: what’s the price of unpaid traineeships?

Unpaid traineeships place a financial burden on young Europeans, exacerbating social inequalities and marginalising vulnerable youth.

According to a survey conducted by the European Youth Forum, young people from the lowest income households are four times less likely to afford unpaid traineeships than their peers in medium level income households. Further, they are eight times less likely than those in the highest income households. Young individuals from disadvantaged social classes face barriers in accessing roles or positions that require a period of unpaid or poorly compensated work. Therefore, graduates from marginalised backgrounds are hindered from accessing fields that depend on poorly remunerated traineeships as initial career opportunities, which exacerbates social inequalities.

In the absence of income, some unpaid trainees rely on financial support from their families or choose to live with their parents to reduce expenses. Does this really benefit the economy of EU member states? 

Unpaid trainees are unable to contribute to the economy. They delay their financial independence and do not have the financial means to really engage in economic activities like spending, saving, or investing, (paying for  rent, a car or transportation, or other goods and services) which contribute to economic growth. Further, families carry the burden when financially supporting their young-adult children, hindering their own economic well-being. Moreover, this may limit the potential for innovation and growth as talented individuals may not have the opportunity to contribute their skills and ideas to the broader economy. 

Ultimately, unpaid traineeships not only hinder the aspirations and opportunities of young Europeans, but also raise concerns about their impact on the overall economic and social structure of EU member states. 

The Harvard Business Review tried to list the most common generational prejudices, with Gen Z being described as narcissistic and unable to work hard. The generational conflict brings together an intertwined set of challenges: rising disparities of opportunities, the significant role geography plays in shaping life and career prospects, the evolving landscape of work marked by limited job prospects, and Western economies undergoing a transformation where achieving more with fewer resources is the goal. Yet, it is time to push for more equitable and inclusive practices that benefit both the youth and the economies of Europe.

Katherine Jeffery is a master student at the Institute of European Studies & Treasurer of Eyes on Europe

(Edited by Luka Krauss)

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